Kathleen Nolan’s book Police in the Hallways is a damning portrait of what happens when this more powerful authority becomes dominant. By exhaustively profiling an unnamed Bronx high school — shadowing and interviewing students, teachers, administrators, security guards, and police officers over the course of an academic year — Nolan reveals the worrying ways educative aims have been eroded by a culture of control, the ways learning is superseded by law enforcement. “An institution that in its early days had purported to serve in loco parentis, taking on some of the functions and responsibilities of parents, appeared instead to have taken on the responsibilities of the criminal-justice system,” she writes. More specifically, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s controversial “quality of life” campaign of aggressively prosecuting squeegee men and turnstile jumpers and the like under the assumption that the punishment of minor infractions will reduce crime overall had been extended into New York City’s struggling public high schools.
The “zero tolerance” order-maintenance model has been enthusiastically embraced by Mayor Bloomberg, but what kind of crime are we talking about when we talk about policing minor infractions in schools? While there are some gang fights and drug dealing, Nolan shows these aren’t the issues that command the most police attention. Instead the sorts of petty incidents that, in the past, would have been mediated by concerned teachers and hall monitors — things like hat wearing, class cutting, talking back or talking too loudly, and not showing ID when asked for it — now fall under the jurisdiction of the NYPD. That is to say, behavioral issues have been reframed as criminal ones.
After carefully examining the school occurrence reports for the year, Nolan found that the majority of arrests and summons were, ultimately, the result of “insubordination” or “disrespect”; in other words, students ignored or resisted officers who told them to take off their hat, hurry up, or show their ID, and the situation escalated from there. These confrontations, which often stem from legitimate frustration at capricious and unaccountable authorities, routinely lead to arrest. (As Nolan shows, some officers appear to publicly humiliate and antagonize students for sport, yet students are expected to react like saints to provocation from their superiors. Taking umbrage is a punishable offense). The “crime” of breaking a school rule — not the law — lands students in court, which, in turn, further derails their academic progress, since they must miss school to appear before a judge.
With zero-tolerance enforcement demanding obedience for its own sake, students become accustomed to being threatened with arrest for minor transgressions; many, eventually, are arrested; they get dragged to the police station and miss class; they accumulate summons and have to spend a day at court; some go to juvenile detention or jail. “The school, where they are by law required to spend most of their day, becomes an auxiliary to the criminal justice system,” writes Nolan. Slippage in the language used to describe school routines, she notes, show how blurry the line has become: Students get “picked up” and “do time”; school personnel “cooperate” with the police, who do “sweeps” of the building. At one point, an officer confidently assures Nolan that the administrators are at the bottom of the school hierarchy, under the private security guards who search bags in the morning. The police, he said, were at the top.
Astra Taylor, The Prison-Educational Complex via The New Inquiry
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