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Debunking the Myths of Violent Schools and Students

Debunking the Myths of Violent Schools and Students

Picture of Annette Fuentes

lockdown high, annette fuentes, education, school violence, reporting on health

When I started work in 2006 on my book, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse, I'd already been collecting research and documents for a few years on the slew of topics that became its various chapters.

Over the previous decade, I'd become more and more fascinated by news reports about incidents of young people, often just children, being detained, suspended and sometimes arrested in schools for behaviors that in my day would have merited a trip to the principal's office at worst. Sometimes, the crackdown was for no bad behavior at all, like the Colorado elementary-age boy who was suspended for bringing to school herbal cough drops that his teacher thought were some kind of illicit drugs. Crazy, weird news items, I thought, but they were becoming more and more frequent.

The late 1990s, capped by the Columbine shooting in April 1999, saw an explosion of school-based zero-tolerance disciplinary policies at the federal, state and local level the likes of which this country had never experienced. Public schools were slowly but surely being infiltrated by both the philosophy and strategies of the criminal justice and prison systems.

The great irony, I discovered by examining the data on school violence collected regularly by the federal education department, was that violent incidents and crimes in school peaked around 1993 and has been falling every since. Just as crime in general in the nation-from violent felonies such as homicide and assault to property crimes-has plummeted, crime and violence in schools also reflected this decline. But the zero tolerance mantra had taken firm root and there has been no drawing down of the punitive approach to school security and discipline. Education researchers and youth advocates coined the term "school-to-prison-pipeline" to explain the phenomenon, which meant simply that when schools fail to educate, they put many students at risk of falling into the criminal justice system.

I spent two years reporting and writing Lockdown High, a process that was probably the most fun I've had as a journalist in my 30-plus year career-despite the serious and often infuriating nature of my chosen subject. But for the first time, I had no word count to box me in, no imminent deadline to cut short any inclination to follow a lead and dig into the many rich stories I came across.

For a print journalist who'd been socialized in the world of daily or even weekly newspapers, a book project was luxurious, indulgent. I traveled to Columbine for the ninth anniversary of the shooting, attended the annual convention of school resource officers (held at Orlando Disneyland!), visited two high school boys in Connecticut who protested their schools' installation of metal detectors and became local celebrities, and I spent a day with the school police chief of Palm Beach County, even participating in an "active shooter" drill with his officers at the department's training center. 

But there was a deadline and it came two years after I signed a contract. Then came the realization and some worry that the issue which had compelled me over many years might somehow have evaporated and become less relevant to a general audience. I wish. When Lockdown High was finally published by Verso at the end of May, it came into a world in which zero tolerance in the schools and the prison-like conditions that so many students encounter on a daily basis, alas, were alive and well. What had changed was the grassroots advocacy movement among students, educators, legal advocates and parents to suspend zero tolerance and al its related policies from the public schools. A campaign I write about in my final chapter, the Dignity in Schools campaign, has grown in size and sophistication, with dozens of organizations around the country participating in its efforts to legislate new approaches to student discipline.

And research on zero tolerance suspensions and its harms was making headlines. One study in particular grabbed headlines in July with its findings of Texas public schools' astronomical suspension rates. It derived from the years-long work of Texas Appleseed, a public interest law firm whose education advocacy director I'd interviewed years earlier for the book. Then, in September, the Dignity in Schools campaign coordinated a Week of Action, with rallies and forums and student actions in 27 cities focusing on the link between harsh student discipline and high rates of students being pushed out of school.

My worry that after so long in the gestation, my book would arrive at a time when the school-to-prison pipeline was far from public awareness was unfounded. Timing is (almost) everything, and for Lockdown High, the timing couldn't have been better. I couldn't have planned it, of course, but I can take advantage of the receptive climate and the potential to reach the widest possible audience with my work.

Not only do I write about suspensions and harsh discipline, but I look at the reality of student drug use-and the unreality of those pushing student drug testing and useless anti-drug messages. And in perhaps the most critical and original chapter, I investigate what I call the "profiteers" of Lockdown High-the industries and individuals who makes money by hyping the threat of school violence and dangerous students. It's good, old fashioned muckraking journalism, following the money, as we have all been taught.

Now, the story branches out and I'm following up on the many new leads I've come across since the book was published. Today, for example, I interviewed a researcher from Washington state whose just-released study found a high correlation between students with a parent deployed to Iraq and violent or high-risk behavior at school. Boys and girls whose parent had served in the military and especially had gone to Iraq were more than twice as likely to engage in fights at school, carry a weapon or join a gang, according to the study by lead author Sarah Reed. She calls for improved school-based services to address the mental health needs of this cohort, which in many areas can be a significant group.

My book is done, but the story isn't over. 

Homepage photo credit: Tyler Nienhouse via Flickr

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