Armed Teachers? South Dakota passes Sentinel Bill

This week The New York Times reports that South Dakota has become the first US state to enact legislation authorising the carrying of guns by school employees and volunteers (rather than, in the case of some other states, allowing staff to carry arms).  The law, which comes into force on July 1st devolves the decision of arming teachers to the local school boards.   This ‘sentinel’ legislation follows the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton Connecticut last December, though the bill was being drafted prior to the killings.

While the South Dakota Legislature voted 40-19 in favour of the bill it is not similarly endorsed by South Dakota educators.  The Associated School Boards of South Dakota has consistently opposed the bill.

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Wake Up!

This short advert comes via Sociological Images on the The Society Pages where it is highlighted for its problematic reduction of high school dropouts to individual laziness. Declaring that “every 26 seconds, a kid drops out of high school”  it implores an African-American teenager to “wake up” and continue in school in order to avoid an uncertain future.

The advert is part of a campaign run by StateFarm, a US insurance company, and the National Basketball Association NBA which aims to reduce the dropout rate in US high schools.

The advert is problematic for reducing the factors that contribute to the high dropout rate in some US high schools to individual motivation.   It may be tempting to conclude that individual young people are responsible for their own educational fate.  They should simply wake up and get themselves to school. It is presented as a personal choice.  Consequently, educational failure can be seen as an individual responsibility.

However, if we have a sociological imagination to draw on, we can explore other explanations and come to an understanding that the lived experiences of individuals are inextricably linked to wider, social factors.  So, in this case, we know that individual responsibility for high school dropout rates in parts of the USA is not supported by the evidence.

A recent study by Leventhal-Weiner and Wallace (2011) highlighted the differences in dropout rates between different ethnic groups in the USA.  Overall, Hispanic students drop out at a rate twice that of Blacks, who, in turn drop out at a rate approaching twice that of Whites.  As they point out in their research, the schools with the highest rate of dropouts are to be found in the poorest communities in US urban areas, with poor employment prospects, poverty, residential instability and low level of education in the community, all to varying extents contributing to high dropout rates.

This is not to say that individuals are determined by these structural factors. Individuals have agency, though that agency might be constrained by their social context.  Indeed, across the USA there are attempts to mitigate the impact of the social context of pupils considered at risk of dropping out by motivating students and building resilience.   However, as Hopson and Lee (2011:2227) argue:

“Policies that place the responsibility for academic success of students living in poverty solely in the hands of schools and teachers prevent meaningful progress.”

In other words, interventions at school or individual level, while they might mitigate some effects of poverty are no panacea.  Nothing short of structural reform will solve this problem.

Continue reading “Wake Up!”

Enforcing School Attendance with Tasers

Earlier this week, in Mount Sterling, Ohio, police responded to a mother’s call for assistance with her nine-year old son who refused to go to school.  While authorities are not releasing full details, it is alleged, that during the course of the visit an officer used a taser gun to subdue the child.

In response the Police Chief has been suspended for allegedly withholding information about the incident from village leaders.

Mount Sterling Police Department Shut Down

Policing Schools

In a recent Guardian article Chris McGreal reports on the Texas schools hosting their own police forces. Police officers patrol school corridors, maintaining order, arresting and charging students with a range of offences which, had they been committed outside of the school’s jurisdiction would be classified as misdemeanours.  Children who are charged are left with a criminal record which can impact on their future prospects.  Thus, childhood misbehaviour and, more generally childhood itself is criminalised.

Marxist sociologists would argue that schools have long been designed as spaces for the control, regulation, surveillance and discipline of (mainly) working class children.  Drill practice was common in Victorian schools, and galleried classrooms lend evidence to the notion of the school as a panopticon, as do biometric controls and CCTV in contemporary schools in the UK and USAIn the United States, Bowles and Gintis (1976: 39) highlighted the “repressive nature” of schooling with its focus on discipline and obedience.  However, as Hirschfield (2008: 80) observes “the traditional disciplinary project of American mass education is slowly crumbling” as the behaviours of students which would once be dealt with via school discipline are criminalised.

It can be argued that this school to prison pipeline replaces the school to factory pipeline described by Bowles and Gintis (op. cit). Schools are no longer required to socialise the next generation of workers, instead they prevent and punish crime, even if that involves expanding the definition of criminal behaviour. And thus, alongside de-industrialisation the criminal justice system has expanded.  Brown (2006) comments on the numbers of school police officers’ associations in the United State, presumably created to protect, and possibly promote their professional interests.

All this relates to the United States.  The presence of police officers in UK schools is recognised to be increasing. Late last year, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)  published Police officers in schools: a scoping study which explored the ways in which the police service worked with schools.  That report did identify a number of challenges to the successful involvement of police in schools.  However, it also appears to accept early intervention as a rationale for police involvement, and is focused on the mutual benefits to pupils, schools, the police and the community.  The report’s concluding section sets out recommendations for ensuring the ‘success’ of police work in schools.  In other words, schools as agencies of criminalisation might soon be common place in the UK too.