Although Exception to the Rule represents a heightened theatrical reality, its detention room setting and student characters provide insight into the punitive conditions many students face today, especially in urban schools. These conditions were created by decades of education policy, budgeting decisions, and systemic oppression that are only beginning to be acknowledged and addressed. At the base of these problems is a culture of white supremacy that has pervaded educational institutions and had a dehumanizing impact on students of color throughout the country.
White Supremacy Culture (WSC) can be understood as "the idea (ideology) that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to those of people of color," as defined in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. Like other ideologies, white supremacy is a system of ideas that may not be visible but nevertheless impacts everyone living within it. White supremacy (sometimes unconsciously) drives educational choices around curriculum, leadership, staffing, and discipline. By emphasizing perfectionism, quantity over quality, the primacy of the written word, and the conviction that “there is only one right way,” WSC particularly demeans Black and indigenous students. Identifying the forms that white supremacy takes in classrooms and schools and taking steps to dismantle it is essential to creating truly equitable educational spaces. Learn more about WSC.
Deficit narratives are an example of White Supremacy Culture in action. Deficit narratives frame underserved students, often those from marginalized and/or low-income communities, as being the cause of their own educational difficulties. Educators, administrators, and policy makers perpetuate messages including, “if underserved students worked harder, they would achieve,” and, in the words of scholars Lori Patton Davis and Samuel D. Museus, “attribute students’ failures to their individual, family, or community traits.” However, according to a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) study, teachers' expectations impact student success more than a student's own motivation. As stated in the study, 10th grade students whose teachers had high expectations of them—compared to those whose teachers had poor expectations—were three times more likely to graduate from college.
The school-to-prison pipeline describes the systematic process of pushing students out of schools and into prisons that has become a trend in many public school systems. It has arisen in part due to government budgets that reduce educational funding, as well as a growing prison-industrial complex—a phenomenon in which the government allows private corporations to manage prisons for-profit, creating economic incentives for mass incarceration. From 1987 to 2007, funding for education increased 21% while funding for incarceration doubled by more than 50%. Black people are overrepresented in prisons and are also the primary casualties of the school-to-prison pipeline.
"Stops" on the School-to-Prison Pipeline
FAILING PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers, and insufficient funding for counselors, special education services, and textbooks can lead to student disengagement and dropouts. In some schools, “low-performing” students are pushed out in order to boost test scores. Research shows that underfunded schools and schools with large populations of students of color are more likely to enforce zero tolerance policies.
“Zero tolerance” means that suspensions and expulsions are commonly used to deal with student misbehavior, even for minor and unintended infractions. Studies show that students who are suspended or expelled are less likely to complete high school and more likely to enter the juvenile justice system within a year of their expulsion.
POLICING SCHOOLS AND CRIMINALIZING STUDENTS
The employment of school resource officers (SROs)—police officers who are often not trained to work with youth—leads to an increase in school-based arrests for nonviolent offenses like disruptive behavior. These school-based arrests are the quickest route from the classroom to prison. Statistically, Black students are more likely to attend schools policed by SROs and are therefore disproportionately arrested by SROs.
DISCIPLINARY ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS
Students who misbehave may be sent to institutions run by private, for-profit companies that are not subject to educational accountability standards. Many of these disciplinary alternative schools lack rigorous academics, adequate building structures, counseling services, and extracurricular activities. In the worst cases, some disciplinary alternative schools subject students to prison-like conditions and physical abuse. These schools have low graduation rates, and their students are more likely than students in traditional schools to be sent to juvenile justice systems.
COURTS AND JUVENILE DETENTION
Once students enter a juvenile detention center, they are more likely to stay in the justice system. The ACLU asserts that many young people are denied procedural protections in juvenile courts, such as access to a defense lawyer. If they are already in the justice system, students who violate parole conditions risk escalated incarceration. Few juvenile detention facilities offer educational services that could reverse the pipeline and allow reentry into traditional schools.
While school dress codes are intended to support a healthy learning environment, research shows that they may have the opposite effect. Many dress codes are based on styles and societal norms over 20 years old and contain implicit bias against female students and students of color. For example, rules about the lengths of skirts or shorts, visible cleavage, and torn jeans put the onus on young women for being sexualized by the male gaze. Rules about hair styles (such as extensions, dreadlocks, and Afros) and fashion styles (like sagging pants and hoodies) have disproportionately impacted Black students: one recent study showed that Black girls were disciplined more frequently than white girls for dress code violations. New studies are questioning the impact of removing students from classes and schools due to clothing violations and urging some schools to revise dress codes with gender neutral language.
Not according to a landmark 2015 study. Dr. Ruth Payne, a former teacher in the U.K., surveyed 11-16 year olds and found that traditional school detention is not effective at changing student behavior; instead, it can have negative effects by damaging student-teacher relationships. While punishments like detention, being called out in front of a class, or losing recess may teach students that bad behavior has consequences, it does not help them understand what they did wrong or learn better behavior. Rather, verbal warnings, contact with parents, and private, one-to-one conversations have better outcomes. Also, a new paradigm called “restorative justice” is now being used in some schools. The philosophy of “restorative justice” promotes the view of students as responsible community members rather than criminals.
Read more about Restorative Justice.
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