Doing K to 12 

In Lockdown High, public school is a prison prep academy


A prison isn't the ideal venue for education, therefore it isn't a great idea to turn schools into prisons. As a corollary, treating children as if they were hardened criminals doesn't imbue them with the joy of learning. On the contrary, they start to react to school the same way prisoners react to prison. They want out.

The proposition that schools shouldn't be prisons shouldn't be controversial—and yet it is, as Annette Fuentes documents in her dismally depressing book, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse (Verso). Since the 1980s, and especially since the Columbine shootings in 1999, the U.S. has experienced a rolling panic that's sparked increasingly draconian security measures in schools across the country.

Fuentes's prose is flat, and she relies on standard journalistic tropes: (a) Description of Outrageous Exemplary Incident, (b) Identification of Larger Problem Illuminated by Said Incident, (c) Report From Convention Held by Evil-doers Who Profit From Larger Problem, (d) Highlighting of Activists Promulgating Inspiring Solutions. But the book's banal style actually intensifies the reader's despair. Metal detectors, drug testing, SWAT teams, head busting, zero tolerance rules, suspensions, racism all tromp by in a parade of idiocy and futility.

Violent homicides in school are vanishingly rare. Study after study shows that kids are less likely to be harmed in school than at home, that school violence has been decreasing since the early 90s, and that the decrease isn't causally related to the ramp-up in security. And yet the locking down of schools goes on. If you didn't know better, you might think we're trying to torture our children.

Indeed, Fuentes provides a some evidence that schooling has always been about torture. In her first chapter, "A Brief History of School Violence," she notes that "as long as there have been public schools . . . there has been chaos and control, crime and punishment in the classroom. . . . The rhythm of switch and ferule—even the cat-o'-nine-tails—provided the meter by which the early schoolmaster or –mistress imparted the three Rs and obedience to misbehaving youngsters."

Fuentes cites this history to show that violence is not in fact on the rise in schools. Kids aren't worse than they used to be, and schools aren't more dangerous. The increasingly hysterical approach to security isn't a response to a real problem, but rather a self-reinforcing exercise in hysteria. She hopes that parent activism can help end that hysteria, which in turn will mean the end of the lockdown high phenomenon. And she sees Chicago as a model, pointing to examples like the Chicago Public Schools's 2006 decision to move away from zero-tolerance policies.

Seems like I'm always hearing that the CPS is at the forefront of something or other. As a Chicago father, I suppose that should make me happy. But the warm, fuzzy feeling doesn't come—and not just because of the incident Fuentes relates about a five-year-old being taken out of a CPS school in handcuffs.

It's because Fuentes's own evidence suggests that the lockdown high phenomenon isn't an aberration but a logical extension of public school philosophy. School has always been a prison—even, as George Bernard Shaw observed, "in some respects more cruel," since in prison "you are not forced to sit listening to turnkeys discoursing without charm or interest on subjects that they don't understand and don't care about. . . ." Nor are prisoners subjected to unending, arbitrary testing. Fuentes shows that public school is a relatively safe place for students' bodies, but doesn't address what it does to their souls.

I initially planned to send my son to a CPS school because, well, it's free and close. Two factors dissuaded me. First, that most Chicago public schools don't have recess. Second, that the website for the one I had in mind says all students have homework every night. This is presented as a good thing.

I'm not sure whether Fuentes would agree that homework and recesslessness qualify as aspects of the lockdown high mentality. But to me it's all of a piece. If you were kind, you could say that public schools struggle to balance the desire to teach kids with the need to control them. A more cynical view might be that the balancing has never been all that difficult since the desire to teach has always been easy to stifle.

So my seven-year-old doesn't go to CPS. Instead, he attends a Waldorf school where they have no metal detectors, hand-cuffs, or homework, but offer two recesses a day. I'm lucky I have the means to send him there. Obviously, public schools are the only option for many others. As Fuentes indicates, we owe it to them to roll back the worst lockdown high excesses. But even if we manage to do that, our public schools will still be no place for children. 


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