Every weekday morning, from September through June, parents across the country get up earlier than they want to, rush like crazy, wrangle kids into appropriate clothing, and wait in exhausting drop-off lines to get their children to school on time. Why? Because punctuality is a virtue? Or because they are afraid of getting in trouble?
In big cities and small communities, the same routine is repeated with minor variations. Small children and near adult adolescents will spend the majority of their waking hours somewhere they would rather not be. But few people question the set-up. Parents send their kids to school with the best of intentions, wanting to produce happy, healthy, productive adults. Public school is supposed to be for their own good. Very few question its necessity and virtue. No one questions the fact that our country’s public schools are looking less and less like places of learning and more and more like places of detention (and I don’t mean The Breakfast Club type either).
When you stop and think about it (which few people actually do), our public schools have more in common with our prison system than any parent would care to admit. Most of us are products of the system and will defend its honor and integrity like sufferers of severe Stockholm Syndrome. So let me break it down into a list of glaring similarities that even those of us who went to public school can easily understand.
1. Both School and Prison Take Away Freedom. To get into prison, a person has to be convicted of a crime (although all of us know that prisons are full of people convicted of pretty bogus crimes… just stick with me). Children in school are only guilty of the crime of being children. Since school attendance is compulsory, children, much like criminal prisoners, don’t get to choose whether they get locked up for seven or more hours a day. They are forced to go to school by strict truancy laws until they are at least 16, at which point their youth has already been squandered inside constrictive cinder block walls.
2. Both School and Prison use Security as a Means of Control. Prisons and public schools both use metal detectors, surveillance cameras, police patrols, drug-sniffing dogs, and lock downs to create a facade of greater security. In most elementary schools, there is an emphasis on moving students from location to location in a rigidly ordered manner. The straight line of silent children walking with hands behind their backs look frighteningly like lines of prisoners. The strict codes of conduct used in the majority of schools, as well as the consistent use of handcuffs and pepper spray on unruly high school students, work together to condition young people to the cultural normalcy of over-policing.
Stay in line. Do as you’re told. Don’t make trouble. These are the messages we send to both our prisoners and our school children. But it’s okay. It’s for their own good.
3. Both Schools and Prisons Serve Undesirable Food. The cafeterias in public schools are scarily similar to prison cafeterias, often even sharing the same menus. Unappetizing, bland, processed meals with little nutritional value are the norm in both institutions. And bringing a lunch from home is banned in many school districts. Add in the armed security guards that patrol most public school lunch rooms and a casual observer might not be able to tell the difference.
4. Both Schools and Prisons Enforce Strict Dress Codes. Like prisons, some schools obligate their students to wear uniforms, limiting self-expression, and encouraging a herd mentality that makes control easier (for safety’s sake, of course). But even in schools without required uniforms, strict dress codes are generally in place. Failure to tuck in a shirt tail can land a student in detention. Donning a blouse that doesn’t adequately cover a girl’s shoulders could get her sent home. Sometimes the dress code guidelines are so arbitrary and so strictly detailed, it seems like they are in place just to get students in trouble. In 2008, Gonzales High School in Texas made the national news for requiring dress code violators to wear actual prison jumpsuits. It’s like officials want the students to seem like criminals. Perhaps it makes the policing of students at their own hands seem more justified.
5. Both Students and Prisoners are Tracked. Many prisons use electronic bracelets or other tracking devices to keep track of prisoners’ locations. Many schools are doing the same thing. ID badges with built-in RFID chips can track the location of a child wherever they are wearing it, and many schools require ID badges to be worn during school hours. Some schools have even started using fingerprints and iris scanners to keep track of their prisoners… I mean students.
6. Both Schools and Prisons Have Armed Guards. Often referred to as SROs (school resource officers), most school buildings are patrolled by armed police officers. They are generally uniformed and carry pepper spray, tasers, and batons that they can use on students should the need arise. These officers police hallways and lunchrooms, administer searches of children’s lockers and school bags, and man the TSA-style checkpoints at the entrances to the buildings our children enter to learn.
7. Both Schools And Prisons do not Allow Anger. Although anger is a justifiable emotion toward constrictive and oppressive political structures, neither students nor prisoners have the power to express their emotions. In prison, angry convicts are locked away in solitary confinement, their movements and small remaining freedoms restricted for safety’s sake. In public school, anger is interpreted as a failing of the individual rather than the system that creates it. There, anger is seen as “disruptive behavior” or “cognitive impairment” or a “social or learning disability”. Often the angry student is marginalized by placement in special education classes, enrolled in “alternative schools”, or medicated to control their disruptions, all of which are just differing forms of confinement.
8. Both Students and Prisoners are Forced to Work. The scene of the prison chain gang in striped clothing, hacking away at rocks and debris is one that most people have seen in old films. Today’s prisoner work force looks a little different, with prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits and doing highway clean-up minus the bulky steel chains. Students are often forced to work, too. Sometimes they are forced to work cleaning up school grounds as a disciplinary action. But in some school systems, volunteer work or “community service” is required each year for a passing grade. Interesting to note that “community service” is frequently doled out as punishment to citizens convicted of minor crimes, but our children are only guilty of being kids.
9. Both Schools and Prisons Follow Strict Schedules. A rigid schedule of walking, eating, learning, exercise, and bathroom use is followed in both institutions. It doesn’t matter when you have to pee, or need to stretch your legs, or want a breath of fresh air. Those things can only be done during allotted times defined by those in authority.
10. Both Schools and Prisons Have Zero-Tolerance Policies. Most public schools now have policies of zero-tolerance when it comes to violence, bullying, drug possession, etc. Interestingly, much of the verbiage in our schools’ disciplinary policies come straight from the nation’s “War on Drugs” (which is directly responsible for the vast majority of our country’s prisoners). Zero-tolerance policies require harsher penalties for sometimes minor classroom offenses and often result in law enforcement being called in to handle school disciplinary actions. The result has been what many refer to as the “School-to-prison pipeline”. The policies make criminals out of students, pushing kids out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system at alarming rates. At least the transition will be easy. Those school children have already spent the majority of their lives in a system that matches the penitentiary where they’ll be spending most of the rest of it.
With such dark and intimidating surroundings, focusing on learning becomes difficult. It’s no wonder most kids don’t want to go to school. When you’re treated like a prisoner, it’s easy to feel like one.