Safe Schools?

A trend toward increasing punitiveness in public schools seems to be taking shape across the nation. Schools are looking more like prisons governed through a penal pedagogical framework of crime while the rights and liberties of parents and students are diminishing (Giroux 2003; Simon 2007). With a national emphasis on crime control in public schools, per the Safe Schools Act of 1994 (Simon 2007), many of the former institutional goals of racial equality and equity are being undermined.

There’s a near consensus among scholars that schools distribute punitive measures in thoroughly racialized ways, punishing black students most often (Keleher 2000; Gregory, Skiba, and Noguera 2010; Welch and Payne 2010). Being suspended or expelled from school substantially increases the likelihood that a young person will be arrested and incarcerated later in their lives (Wald and Losen 2003; Simmons 2006; Weissman, Cregor, and Gainsborough 2008). Racial disparities in suspension and expulsion rates, then, contribute to racial disparities in educational outcomes and life chances of young people in the United States. Harsh punitive measures by school officials do not lead to the improvement of pupils’ behavior or  reduce school violence and increase school safety (Imich 1994; Skiba and Peterson 1999; Skiba et el. 2008).

Map by Dan Cooper

To quantify one dimension of this problem, Mariame Kaba of Project NIA, and Frank Edwards of the SSRC at DePaul this week released “Policing Chicago Public Schools,” a report detailing the scope and character of arrests occurring on Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) property. Data on policing activities in public schools is pretty difficult to get. School officials, CPS in particular, are very reluctant to release information about school discipline, and the Chicago Police Department has only recently made useful data on crime and arrests easily accessible to the public. This report is an effort to make what is going on in schools more transparent.

Key findings of the report include:

  • More than 5,500 arrests of young people under 17 years old took place on CPS properties in 2010.
  • Black youth are disproportionately targeted for arrest at school. In 2010, while they represented 45% of CPS students, black youth accounted for 74% of juvenile school-based arrests .
  • Young men are much more likely to be arrested on CPS property than their female counterparts.
  • Nearly a third of school-based arrests in 2010 were for simple battery (fighting).
  • Certain police districts on Chicago’s South Side have far greater rates of arrest at schools than other police districts.

Notably, this data suggests that arrests on CPS property account for about 20 percent of all juvenile arrests in  Chicago. The bulk of these arrests are for relatively minor infractions such as simple battery and disorderly conduct.  Theorists, empirical scholars and activists have argued for some time that as zero-tolerance policies and policing have replaced traditional school disciplinary practices (e.g., a trip to the principal’s office), the rates of suspension, expulsion and arrest at schools have skyrocketed, suggesting that we might best view these efforts as creating a school-to-prison pipeline. This report provides empirical precision to help quantify the magnitude of the problem in Chicago. The results unfortunately confirm that this pipeline is indeed operating here and is contributing to the production of the racial bias scholars detect operating throughout the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Frank Edwards contributed to this post.

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