Blog post

"Zero-Tolerance Policy Creates a School-to-Prison Pipeline"

Clara Heyworth11 May 2011

New America Media has posted an interview with Annette Fuentes, author of Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse, and former NAM managing editor.

Jacob Simas:

We've witnessed a trend over the last 20 years or so, of schools embracing security and punishment as a means to control student behavior. Would it be safe to assume, then, that our schools are not as safe as they used to be?

Annette Fuentes:

It would be very inaccurate [to say that]. Schools today are among the safest places for children to be, and that includes their homes and their neighborhoods. We know, the experts know, that the level of violence in our public schools is among the lowest level it's been in in about 20 years. School violence peaked in the early ‘90s. Data from the National Center on School Violence ... show clearly that incidents of violence in schools have been going down. And this parallels crime in general, in the wider society. So schools are in almost all cases the safest places for kids to be. That doesn't mean that there are not incidents of school violence, but they have been so blown out of proportion that most people walk around thinking that another Columbine is just around the corner.


So why the hysteria around violence? Now, you mentioned Columbine, but certainly the hysteria is due to more than just one isolated incident.


Columbine happened in 1999, but in fact there had been a handful—maybe four or five—of very high-profile school shootings in the years preceding Columbine. There was one in Paducah, Kentucky; a student who shot classmates at a prayer group up in Springfield, Orgeon; a young man who shot and killed his parents and then went to school with his gun and shot at folks. There were several that were very high profile. So people already were kind of primed for school violence.

Now, remember, these shootings were very high profile; they claimed multiple victims. But compared to how many kids are killed every day in acts of violence in their own homes, in their own neighborhoods, it just doesn't even compare. But these were crimes that had shocked people, and that made it appear that schools were violent. And it fit with the narrative of violent children, violent schools that had been building since the 1980s.

You know, we've been a society afraid of crime since, really, the Reagan administration and perhaps before. But the war on drugs led to the war on kids, and the increasing prison-like conditions for juveniles in general. So we started cracking down on kids in schools and it's just led to a whole raft of policies and practices that have made schools more and more like prisons.

My book talks about everything, from the increased presence of police, the increased use of drug-sniffing dogs, of drug testing in schools—and I'm not even talking urban schools, I'm talking about schools in suburban New Jersey or suburban Oregon—where parents are afraid that their kids are doing drugs and are out of control. We are clamping down on kids with other high tech security and surveillance equipment at a time of scarce school resources. School districts are spending money on the surveillance hardware of the prison state.

Visit New America Media to read the interview in full.

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