Education

I Was Almost a Victim of the Student-to-Prison-Pipeline

Why are schools so eager to adopt police roles and assist in the creeping (and creepy) militarization of U.S. institutions?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/sakhorn

The school-to-prison-pipeline is an epidemic that is plaguing the nation, making a visit to the principal’s office or a lonesome time-out outside of your classroom a thing of the past. What we have here is a war not only on students, but a war on kids, where essentially nonviolent behavior (like the two students who were arrested for pouring milk on each other during a break-up) is being criminalized in a remarkably horrific pattern. What’s worse is that schools are not only allowing this criminalization, but they are actually assisting it.

Today the evolving police state and its worker bees are finding themselves rather comfortable roaming school hallways, ‘visiting’ classrooms and relaxing in school offices. In the past year, students have been arrested for burping in class, improperly conducting science experiments, or throwing water balloons. When students aren’t arrested police are actively (and aggressively) making their presence known by conducting spontaneous drug searches, interrogations and guarding school entrances and principals’ offices.

In light of this booming trend, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own case of student criminalization two years ago during my senior year in high school. To my surprise, I was pulled out of my pre-calculus class and escorted to my vice principal’s office where I was greeted by a uniformed and armed police officer, otherwise known as my high school’s School Resource Officer (SRO). The SRO closed the door behind me, sat me down and said, “It’s come to my attention that you have written a story about graffiti. Would you like to help me do my job today?”

I was totally bewildered.

Before I could answer him he went on to explain that he was referring to an article I had written for my high school’s newspaper titled “Art or Vandalism?” where I discussed the illegal and creative qualities of graffiti in the city of Davis, CA. He began by insisting that I help him by disclosing the names of two graffiti artists quoted in my article.

At first I thought this was a joke, but the potential humor slowly dissolved as I was going nowhere fast.

“Tell me their names. If you don’t cooperate there will be serious consequences,” he said.

But I told him I wouldn’t help him.

“I promised I wouldn’t give their names away, I gave my word to them,” I said.

At first he was surprised by my response. And then he got mad. He then told me, in an absurdly aggressive voice, that my article was not “real” journalism. Therefore, he said, it was my “duty and obligation” to reveal the identities, and that if I refused to do so, I would be taken to court, found guilty and charged with a felony.

At this point I was still confused. I thought back to the numerous articles I had read online about graffiti and wondered if those reporters had been jailed, too. I thought, “Why would my newspaper adviser let me write about graffiti if she knew I would be prosecuted?” and “What does he mean my reporting wasn’t ‘real’ journalism?” Though I knew I had not committed any crime by reporting on an illegal activity, I grew increasingly annoyed since I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. Yet here I was sitting in a room with an armed police officer hovering over me telling me that regardless if I decided to help him, the artists and myself would “without a doubt be put in prison.”

At the same time, my vice principal and school hall monitors crowded around me echoing the SRO’s demands, telling me to “do the right thing” and to “get this over with.” Not once was I told I could remain silent, leave the room or contact my parents or a lawyer.

Still, I continued to tell the SRO that I would not give him the names. He continued to tell me that wasn’t an option, and that he’d hold me here until he got what he needed. So I sat there with the SRO walking around me and my school officials looking at me like I was a fool. But as time wore on, and nothing changed, I began to feel at a loss. I suddenly became scared I would be put in jail. I was suddenly confused about my role as a journalist. And as the clock ticked past the hour mark, my confidence plummeted and I became tired.

In these moments of exhaustion and fear I told the officer I only knew the pseudonyms of the artists, but that I could give him the name of a documentary film student who had helped me get in contact with them.

Suddenly, at the hour and a half mark, I was allowed to leave. Though I was relieved to have been dismissed, I was humiliated and ashamed because I had also told this student I would not disclose his name. (I later discovered that this student was also interrogated and threatened. The only difference was he refused to cooperate in any fashion.)

As soon as I was dismissed, I was escorted back to my math class and a hall monitor confiscated my cell phone. In confiscating my phone, I was actively prevented from contacting my parents or a lawyer, and it was only until after school was let out, three hours later, that I was able to call my father and tell him what had happened. My school had yet to inform him.

Later that week, I was pulled out of class again and escorted by a school supervisor to the same closed-door room with the same SRO waiting for me. By this time, though, I had contacted the Student Press Law Center and been arranged to be represented by the ACLU of Northern California. I had been informed that the California Shield Law protected the confidentiality of my interviewees and that I would not be imprisoned for protecting their identities.

So, I told the SRO I would not help him and promptly left the room.   

After much debate and a series of letters and legal documents sent to the Davis School District, the SRO was prevented from contacting me and the ‘case’ was dropped.

Looking back on it now, I can’t help but wonder why my school was so eager and enthusiastic to help facilitate the SRO in his interrogations. My school had happily opted me out of my education in order to assist in an off-campus investigation that had nothing to do with school policy or a campus threat. What’s more, my school hadn’t even thought of contacting my parents to let them know I was being investigated.

Unfortunately, this kind of school behavior happens all the time.

One month after my case, a boy known as J.D.B. was pulled out of class and escorted into a closed-door room and questioned by police and school officials about a theft. Though the severity of theft and my free speech case are different, what’s important here is the similarity in treatment.

School officials told J.D.B. to “do the right thing,” while the SRO told him “this thing is going to court.” His parents were not contacted and he was not afforded Miranda warnings. After 45 minutes of aggressive questioning, J.D.B. admitted to the theft.

J.DB.’s case did not involve any school safety threat, nor had it occurred on campus. Therefore, it should have been handled off-campus during non-school hours. But instead J.D.B.’s class time was taken from him, and his school happily allowed this.

I have to ask: Why are schools nationwide so desperate to involve students with police authorities?

“There’s definitely a massive trend toward increasing school resource officers, so much so that departments are having trouble buying guns and supplies,” said Michael Dorn, director of Safe Havens International, in Macon, Ga., in a New York Times interview.

This trend is happening everywhere. According to a Massachusetts ACLU report titled “Arrested Futures,” students as young as 11 in Springfield, Mass. schools have been arrested for showing disrespect to school officials and for "acting out" in ways that may be considered disruptive. Elsewhere students have been arrested for such behavior including leaving crumbs on the floor, doodling on a desk or bringing a small plastic butter knife to school.

And, unsurprisingly, there’s a race card involved. Thirty-five percent of black children grades 7-12 have been suspended or expelled at some point in their school careers compared to 20 percent of Hispanics and 15 percent of whites. In New York, data from the School Safety Act revealed that from the 2011-12 school year, black students are being disproportionately arrested and suspended.

This only helps feed into what Michelle Alexander has called “the new Jim Crow.”

We can see this race factor and the militarization of schools in the 2003 SWAT drug raid of a South Carolina public high school where nearly all of the students searched and seized were students of color. The SWAT officers, notified of a possible marijuana problem by the high school’s principal, were armed and wore bulletproof vests drawn by drug dogs.

Sixteen-year-old Joshua Ody, one of the students involved in the raid, told the ACLU afterwards: "I felt like I had less rights than other people that day.”

Perhaps it could be helpful to look at how the growth of institutionalized police presence at schools has contributed to today’s police state status quo and creeping militarization.

The year 1999 saw the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. Immediately, Colorado schools upped their police and security presence. Between 2000 and 2004 alone, Denver had a 71 percent increase in school referrals to law enforcement.

The nation became more militarized as well. In the late 1970s, there were reportedly fewer than 100 police officers in schools. But by 2007, almost 70 percent of schools had security guards and/or police officers despite growing evidence of school violence decreasing since the early 1990s. Today more than a third of American sheriffs' departments and almost half of all police departments have officers assigned to local schools.

More recently, following the Newtown shootings, the National Rifle Association and President Obama recommended that more police officers be placed in the nation’s schools. Other proposals included deploying the National Guard and arming every teacher. Such recommendations exist despite growing research that suggests a larger police presence in schools does little to improve safety

Just this past February the Pentagon proposed funding a campus center at Yale’s School of Medicine for training 60 Green Berets per year in "cross-cultural" interrogation techniques. As to why Yale School of Medicine agreed to the project when interrogation strategies has nothing to do with medicine no one really knows.

But what is clear is that schools, elementary, high school and college alike are curiously eager to adopt police roles; not to mention assist in the creeping (and creepy) militarization of the nation’s institutions. Consequently, not only are students exposed to moments of self-criminalization (like J.D.B. and myself were) due to a neglect of Miranda warnings and a dismissal of our Constitutional rights, but schools are confusing discipline with security. Now students are rapidly slipping down the criminalization slope.

But it’s not just a police presence that we’re seeing here; it’s the overall militarization of teachers, students and school products. The Minnesota Rocori School District just recently purchased bulletproof whiteboards made by a company that is, as PBS put it, “is better known for its military armor products.” Bulletproof clipboards, backpacks and wall panels are also gracing schools. In some cities, ‘shelter in place’ trainings advocate fighting back.

What this alludes to is the increased effort (and support) of schools ignoring responsibilities of loco parentis and providing a safe learning environment. Students should not be pulled out of their valuable and essential class time to be interrogated or searched by police for nonviolent and/or off-campus incidents. Nor should we be spending class time instructing students on how to use protective equipment or how to ‘fight back’ (whatever that means).

The so-called ‘school-to-prison-pipeline’ was nearly reality for myself even though I was never suspected of violating any school rule or law. Had it not been for the help of Student Press Law Center and the ACLU, the identities of my legally concealed interviewees might have been disclosed and criminalized. My school eagerly worked to help ensure this outcome.

This begs the question: What is it that the U.S. is expecting of its schools? It seems priorities of loco parentis and education could be slipping out the back door, and fighting mechanisms are floating in. This is not what education is about, and it’s absolutely appalling that schools are accepting this shift in priorities.

Though schools have always been considered sites for social control, schools may be slipping towards a scarier, militarized site for fear-driven social discipline – something that only ensures a more secure policed school regime.

But at the heart of this creeping militarization is the issue of trust. How are students to trust schools have student safety or education in their best interest when schools are facilitating student criminalization? How are students supposed to feel safe when their schools resemble a prison?

I felt betrayed by my school and personally attacked, but I was also hurt that school officials never thought to protect me from aggressive police encounters or afford me Miranda warnings. Instead, school authorities actively worked to facilitate my vulnerability and make me feel like a criminal. To this day my school has not apologized for the fear-driven treatment it helped ensure and facilitate.

Perhaps this lack of apology is more telling to the fact that my school, and others like it, did not view their assistance in moving students through the school-to-prison-pipeline as wrong. 

Alana de Hinojosa is an intern at AlterNet. Email her at alana@alternet.org, and follow her on Twitter @alanahinojosa