When Schools Resemble Prisons


The police-managed security structure in inner-city schools is ostensibly designed to keep students safe. But has it become an occupying force that does more harm than good to teenagers?

That question lies at the heart of a provocative new book by Carla Shedd, an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Columbia University. Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice (Russell Sage) focuses on Chicago, where neighborhood segregation and class stratification have been endemic for generations. Shedd draws on a lode of data enhanced and illustrated by interviews with students, whom she calls “the guinea pigs for an enormous experiment.”

She writes: “Just as schools are beginning to resemble prisons, the youth contained in these spaces are in danger of fulfilling the expectations that authorities project onto them via negative racial, gender, class, and neighborhood stereotypes…In the name of justice, and often in the name of protecting our youth, America's schools and criminal justice systems are veering toward a curious alliance that I have called the universal carceral apparatus.”

The subject of the school/police dynamic drew fresh attention this week when a viral video showed a school cop violently manhandling a black teenage girl—apparently over a routine cellphone infraction—at a school in Columbia, S.C. Shedd told The Crime Report that such minor problems escalate because school police see their role as “not to counsel but to arrest.”

She spoke with TCR contributing editor David J. Krajicek. (Some portions of the conversation have been condensed.)

The Crime Report: Unequal City is rooted in research that began nearly 15 years ago, when you were in grad school at Northwestern. What surprised you as you began?

Carla Shedd: I came to this as a scholar interested in African American studies and inequality. I expected to find variations of experiences by race in Chicago. But I didn't really expect to find the depth of racial segregation that almost completely insulates black and brown kids from even knowing about the inequalities they live with. That was one of the unexpected findings. We saw that black and Hispanic youth who were in more segregated schools actually had lower perceptions of injustice with regard to knowing about how the world works and who’s treated better by race, class or gender…

TCR: You quote one student as saying Harper High School “feels like a prison.” Describe the police presence at Harper, a predominantly black school in an impoverished South Side neighborhood.

Shedd: Before school, you'll find kids lined up outside waiting to pass through security checkpoints where they can expect to be patted down or wanded. At dismissal, there might be 10 cop cars outside, and often they'll have a paddy wagon parked there too. Within minutes of dismissal, the officers will tell the kids, “OK, get off the property. You've got to go now.” For some kids, they take this as a signal that the officers want them to get home safely. For others, it was like, why is this necessary?

TCR: And how does security at Harper compare with an esteemed magnet school like Walter Payton Prep, also a focus of your research?

Shedd: Security guards line the hallways at Walter Payton, too, due to a mandate for school security that is applied broadly across the board. So kids at a place like Tilden High, where relationships between black and Hispanic students can be contentious, might be saying, “We want more police.” In others, they're saying, “Well, police are just hawking me for little things because they have nothing else to do. Why do we need them here just looking at us?” So the universal security overlay needs more nuance.

TCR: What's the impact on Harper kids?

Shedd: It hurts them. It changes the mindset with which they approach their education, and that changes the trajectory of educational attainment.

TCR: You conducted much of the research for this book from 2001-2010, during what you called a “monumental transformation” in public housing and public schools in Chicago. What was happening?

Shedd: The charter school movement took root, which led to closures or mergers of many public schools. At the same time, the Chicago Housing Authority was moving away from high-rise buildings toward smaller scale, scattered-site public housing, which caused many neighborhoods to change.

TCR: Chicago's charter school boom led to the shuttering of dozens of public schools, many in African-American neighborhoods. This added miles to the school commute for thousands of kids. Why is that important?

Shedd: I think it hearkens back to the days of busing. It's a lot for these kids to go through, traveling long distances across many neighborhoods twice a day. There's the extra time to get to school, but there's also extra work that has to be done mentally as they navigate across different boundaries.

TCR: You cite survey results that half of minority students in Chicago feel unsafe traveling to school. Explain the peril of gang boundary crossings for kids.

Shedd: Even if they aren't involved in a gang, kids can be identified by where they live. There's an overlay of gangs on top of an already very stratified geography in Chicago. When I moved to 50th and Drexel, some people were like, oh, that's a Black P. Stone block (Editor's Note: a large, venerable Chicago gang). Now that has nothing to do with how I lived my life, but that's because I'm not a 15-year-old going to high school there. Kids take these affiliations with them. So going to and from school, crossing a particular street—and they all know the boundaries—is important. They know, oh, I can't go under this viaduct because that neighborhood over there doesn't like our kind.

TCR: And you write that these considerations can inhibit opportunities.

Shedd: Rina, one of the students I interviewed, told me, “I would love to go to a better school, but I can't leave the neighborhood where I live because if there are bad people around here, at least they know who I am and that I'm generally a good person. So I don't want to have to go figure out how to deal with other bad people outside of my neighborhood.” It's heartbreaking. She says she wants to be a lawyer because she loves to argue and debate, but she wouldn't feel safe leaving her home. You're talking about 14- and 15-year-olds who are really constraining their dreams based on these very real safety concerns.

TCR: You write Chicago schools “are the central sites that create, maintain, and perpetuate” racial stratification. That's a damning perspective. Explain.

Shedd: Well, I wanted to step out there and have an argument about this, shake it up a little. There's a huge body of academic literature about neighborhood effects…To me, it's bigger and broader than that. Neighborhoods are not entities by themselves. There are overlays that include law enforcement, schools, social services, and much, much more. And there are linkages between each, and together these things become hugely formative for young people.

Kids who attend Harper are forced to ask questions, day in and day out, like how do we survive, how do we make this work? They might have very high aspirations—to finish high school and go on to college. Many strive as much as the kids who attend Lincoln Park (Editor's Note: a highly regarded high school on the North Side). But those attending Harper are relegated to a lower track with fewer resources. This serves to perpetuate the racial and economic status quo.

TCR: Are Harper kids aware of the disparity?

Shedd: They don't necessarily understand it concretely since most lack the context of having attended a school like Lincoln Park. But some certainly sense it. For some kids, it can feel devaluing and disempowering. Others seem to use it as a source of inspiration, striving to overcome.

TCR: Is the Chicago experience typical?

Shedd: Many large urban school systems are grappling with issues of black and brown kids stuck in public schools that are not well resourced. I know Chicago the best, but it's not unique in that public schools in certain neighborhoods of many American cities serve to stratify people.

TCR: You reject the metaphor of the school-to-prison pipeline but say that government policies “intricately link” schools and prisons. Explain.

Shedd: I don't like the pipeline image because the pipe is filled with dropouts, not the students who are working hard to succeed. But I do see a carceral continuum in the lives of minorities. The law enforcement entities may change, but their presence in some form is continual. The goal is to control people and try to constrain behavior, in ways that range from subtle to overt…For one example, teachers used to be involved in disciplining their own students, which means they were directly invested in both the minds and physical actions of their kids. Today, discipline has been outsourced to school security officers or police. So law enforcement is now in control of any bodily impulses. And I think that says something about how we now view young people and the mission of educating the whole person.

TCR: You say that some of the kids you interviewed felt that certain school safety officers raised anxieties and even escalated conflicts instead of making students feel safer. That's counterintuitive.

Shedd: The kids definitely are able to rate the legitimacy of these officers. They might differentiate between police officers and school security guards, who don't have the same training. They were really able to evaluate the quality of one versus another.

TCR: The South Carolina classroom video this week seems to be a vivid example of the classroom discipline outsourcing that you describe. Is this scenario, where a cop is called to a classroom over an incidental infraction and violence ensues, an aberration or the new normal in education?

Shedd: This is not uncommon. Police officers in schools don’t have to alter their expansive use-of-force guidelines even though they are exercising them in schools, on children. What is abnormal is that other students were able to pull out their cellphones to record the school officer’s assault of the student who, ironically, wouldn’t put away her cellphone.

TCR: It seems like the sort of “escalation” the Chicago students mentioned to you.

Shedd: My first question when I saw the South Carolina school video was whether the teacher thought to ask what was going on at home before calling in an officer to remove her. Maybe there was an emergency situation—and there are unconfirmed reports that she has experienced two recent deaths in her family. If officers are in schools, small issues will escalate because their tools are not to counsel but to arrest.

TCR: Has daily contact with police made students feel more comfortable around them?

Shedd: In general, they see the police as a contingent rather than as individuals. They are viewed as an external entity. I found it fascinating and informative that some kids call them “the polices,” a plural of a plural. Most are not seen as individuals, though some break through—a familiar officer who is seen as friendly or kind or that they recognize because she worked at the project where the student lived. There are possibilities to foster positive connections with the police officers, but it takes some work on both sides.

Part of the problem is that, at home in their neighborhoods, the students did not have high regard for police. They would say, “They just drive by and don't even care anything about you, and they come late if there's a shooting or if you call for help.” They didn't see them as a true protector and server.

TCR: Even adolescents had these negative opinions?

Shedd: I would ask kids with negative feelings about police when they had begun to feel that way. One said, “By the time I was 13.” There is a window, I think, but by the time they're 12 or 13 or 14, interactions or second-hand anecdotes will put kids on a path toward thinking about the police more negatively.

TCR: So they might be conditioned early to “stop snitching”?

Shedd: That comes from not seeing police as service-providers and not thinking that they will actually help your cause, so what's the point of going to them?

TCR: So it's a relationship failure…

Shedd: When you think about it, black people call on the police the most, when you consider service calls and all that. And that says something to the vulnerability of poor black and brown people who have to rely on public agencies. But they also want quality service, and they don't get it. So they're the best people to assess whether this agency is in fact protecting and serving them…When the relationship goes wrong, it really goes wrong. And then it becomes difficult to reset and try the relationship again. The negative interactions stick more than any positive interactions.

David J. Krajicek is a contributing editor for The Crime Report. Follow him on Twitter @DJKrajicek. He welcomes your comments.

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