Schools-as-prisons

I have, in times past, made many metaphorical references to schools being like prisons.  There are, if you think about it, a lot of similarities — especially since Columbine: weapons checks, locker searches, closed campuses, strict visitor control, etc.  EducationWeek’s Law Blog is covering one of these similarities:

A school’s placement of an autistic child in a locked isolation room for misbehavior was “a recognized educational tool” and was part of the child’s special education plan, thus a parent who challenged the tactic first had to exhaust administrative remedies before suing, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The case wasn’t really about the merits of the school’s action.  At issue was the question over whether the family of the child had exhausted administrative remedies.  What this means in lay English is that the family is required to go through a series of administrative steps — appeal to principal, appeal to the school board, etc. — before going to court.  I believe (but am not 100% certain) that the point of exhaustion requirements is to keep the case load of the courts down to a reasonable level; if someone can get what they want by complaining to the principal, then, the thinking goes, why not just have them write a letter and not clog up the docket.

One of the judges dissented, apparently claiming that the violations were severe enough to warrant circumventing the normal administrative steps:

U.S. Circuit Judge John T. Noonan noted in his dissent that a Washington state teacher repeatedly locked a 7-year-old child identified as D.P. “into an unventilated, dark space the size of a closet for indeterminate amounts of time, causing D.P. to become so fearful that he routinely urinated and defecated on himself.”

Now, to be fair to the school district, because of the procedural posture of the case, the court is required to take the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff (the defendant was moving for summary judgment on exhaustion grounds) so it’s not been decided what did and did not occur.  But I think he might have a point — here’s the key line from his dissent (the opinion and dissent are available here):

Viewing the facts as we must, in the light most favorable to the Paynes, it is clear that Ms. Coy’s misuse of the isolation room serves no legitimate educational purpose, is prohibited by state administrative regulations, and was imposed as punishment.

Which brings me back to my first thought — this sounds an awful lot like prison, only now instead of a metaphor — we’re apparently now actually locking children up.  Maybe it’s for their own good, and maybe it’s punishment — I don’t know.  What I do know is that it’s creepy.  I’m all for locking crazy people up in asylums — I think that it’s generally a mercy as compared to letting them roam the streets.   But locking up students?  That’s not what schools are for.  This tactic is apparently limited to certain special education situations — but I’m not sure that makes it any better.   It might make it worse.

Comments

  1. But locking up students? That’s not what schools are for.

    I’m tempted to call you a Pollyanna and suggest that the modern compulsory school (at least past, say, elementary levels) is, in large part, exactly that, disguised as an educational project.

    It certainly explains why completely ineffective schools are kept open without change, doesn’t it?

    And why students that don’t want to learn anything (and thus aren’t going to, since you cannot force them to) are made to be there with threats of “real” jail for themselves and/or their parents.

    Schools do a great job – even when they’re not teaching anything – of keeping young adults off the streets during the day, keeping them from, say, vandalizing or robbing the domiciles of people who are working for a living, and giving parents a way to work all day without hiring someone to watch them.

    Many, probably most (again, post-elementary) schools really do try to teach more than just house teens and preteens to keep them from causing too much trouble during the way.

    But I’m not sure that it’s ever not a factor, and in many places the most parsimonious explanation for what the schools actually do is that they’re basically daytime prisons.

  2. Michael, this story is only one manifestation of a much bigger issue — the use of restraints and seclusion (the term used for putting the child in a room by him/herself, whether or not the room is locked). Children without IEP’s are never subjected to restraints; they are sometimes subjected to seclusion under the rubric of “time out.” The debate concerns students with behavioral disorders (that autistic child would fall in this category). Both restraints and seclusion have been used in most states when such children are behaving in a way that presents a danger to themselves or others, or causes major disruption. Some parents and therapists argue that these are inappropriate ways to deal with outbursts, and that they should not be used in place of a more long-range, educationally appropriate method based on analyzing what types of classroom events are the antecedents to the dangerous or disruptive behavior, with a view towards modifying the classroom to prevent outbursts rather than responding to them after the fact.

    All by way of saying that the article you cite points towards a real problem, but is not particularly a sign of schools behaving like prisons. Schools do have to have ways of keeping children safe; we can hope that they use humane and educationally-sound ways to do that, but there are going to be instances when either school personnel are inadequately trained, or else there was no way to prevent the dangerous behavior even with good planning and training.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Pinetree.
    The kid in question was autistic. As you know, there are various degrees of autism manifested in a lot of different behaviors.
    Locking up a kid in isolation does not protect him from hurting himself, but it does take a disruption out of the classroom. Still, it isn’t much of an educational tool except for the rest of the class.
    Personally, were it my kid, I’d probably be in jail at this point.
    Thing about disturbed kids is that they really don’t understand, as in make the connection, why they’re in whatever situation they’re in. Shoving them into a room by themselves amounts to mental cruelty of the worst sort. THEY DO NOT KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING. That’s a major stressor.
    If a school has a disturbed kid enrolled, they need to have a pre-planned set of responses to acting out. Shoving the kid into a room solves nothing.

    The other thing schools do is reduce the downward pressure on wages caused by a bunch of ambitious fifteen-year-olds looking for employment.

  4. Richard, I don’t disagree with anything you said. I’m just giving some background, not excusing the school.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    i am confused not having a “challenged” child and needing an IEP I thought special needs kids were to be placed in the least restrictive environment even if this disrupts those kids that really want to learn. Am I wrong or is this only for those kids with IEPs?

    In any event I believe this school is doing this child way more harm than good…but personally if the child is disruptive I would not want him/her in my children’s classrooms…Yes, I am all for tracking…

  6. (Sigivald): “Schools do a great job – even when they’re not teaching anything – of keeping young adults off the streets during the day, keeping them from, say, vandalizing or robbing the domiciles of people who are working for a living, and giving parents a way to work all day without hiring someone to watch them.

    This gives schools too much credit. In Hawaii,
    juvenile arrests fall in summer, when school is not in session.

    Reported house burglaries fall in summer, while auto burglaries rise. The safest time to burglarize a house is in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, during the school year. Otherwise, there will be a teenager home watching TV.

    In Hawaii, juvenile hospitalizations for human-induced trauma fall in summer.

    School is a ready-made drug market. In Hawaii, juvenile arrests for possession and promotion fall in summer. Adult arrests for promotion fall in summer, while adult arrests for promotion rise.

    Clive Harber
    “Schooling as Violence”
    Educatioinal Review p. 10, V. 54, #1.
    (Quoting) “…It is almost certainly more damaging for children to be in school than to out of it. Children whose days are spent herding animals rather than sitting in a classroom at least develop skills of problem solving and independence while the supposedly luckier ones in school are stunted in their mental, physical, and emotional development by being rendered pasive, and by having to spend hours each day in a crowded classroom under the control of an adult who punishes them for any normal level of activity such as moving or speaking.”

    Clive Harber
    “Schooling as Violence”
    Educatioinal Review, p. 9 V. 54, #1.
    “Furthermore, according to a report for UNESCO, cited in Esteve (2000), the increasing level of pupil-teacher and pupil-pupil violence in classrooms is directly connected with compulsory schooling. The report argues that institutional violence against pupils who are obliged to attend daily at an educational centre until 16 or 18 years of age increases the frustration of these students to a level where they externalise it.”

    Schools do not prevent crime; they cause it. Compulsory, unpaid labor is slavery. Schools assemble their audience through threats of violence directed at students (truancy laws), parents (educational neglect laws) and taxpayers (taxation).

    What we in the US call “the public school system” originated in Christian evangelism and anti-Catholic bigotry. “The public school system” has become an employment program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel, a source of padded construction and supply contracts for politically-connected insiders, and a venue for State-worshipful indoctrination. If this is not so, why cannot any student take, at any age, an exit exam (the GED will do) and apply the taxpayers’ $10,000 per pupil-year age 6-18 education subsidy toward post-secondary tuition at any V.A.-approved post-secondary institution or toward a wage subsidy at any qualified private-sector employer?

  7. Sorry. I wrote: “Adult arrests for promotion fall in summer, while adult arrests for promotion rise.”

    Should be: “Adult arrests for promotion fall in summer, while adult arrests for possession rise.”

    Half the dealers go out of business and the supply shifts to the adults.

  8. Assuming that the original story was correct …

    “A school’s placement of an autistic child in a locked isolation room for misbehavior was “a recognized educational tool” and was part of the child’s special education plan”

    IEPs are constructed by the school’s SpecEd people, a psychiatrist and or social worker, and the PARENTS. All of these people have to sign off on this so of course the parent has to go through administrative appeal first — the plan was authorized. The parent has to go back through the same process that made the first plan that he agreed to and rectify it.

    It definitely sounds as though the plan needs to be changed and it sounds as though the teacher was unable to deal with this kid properly. Probably, this kid was “mainstreamed” into a class that was inappropriate with a teacher untrained to deal with him.

    Snap judgment: Bad news all around. Mainstreaming is the villain here.

  9. It’s politically incorrect to say it, but Curmudgeon is right: some kids do not belong in a regular school setting. Whether the issue is cognitive, physical or psychiatric (behavioral, autism, whatever), these kids should be in other facilities equipped and staffed to handle the severely challenged at levels appropriate to their needs and abilities. The criminal element also needs to be removed, as should the hard-core disruptive one. With appropriate disciplinary policies in place and enforced, the remainder actually have a chance to get an education.

  10. prometheus says:

    “Mainstreaming is the villain here.”

    This says it all. I am all for inclusion, but only to a point. There are many students who are put in classrooms when they are clearly totally incapable of functioning in them. This is the real crime.

    I think there is far too much leniency when discussing least restrictive environments. There are a lot of kids who simply should not be in school at all. They need avenues of education that simply don’t exist, more’s the pity.

    It frustrates me when I spend 90% of my time dealing with disruptive behavior from 10% of the students. Especially when I see the kids who struggle academically, but who want to learn and succeed, get left out in the cold.

  11. (mofof4): “some kids do not belong in a regular school setting. Whether the issue is cognitive, physical or psychiatric (behavioral, autism, whatever), these kids should be in other facilities equipped and staffed to handle the severely challenged at levels appropriate to their needs and abilities.”

    You describe a voucher-subsidized competitive market in education services. So long as the State (government, generally) operates schools, bureaucracies will control schools (see Chubb and Moe, 1990). Mainstreaming, bussing, the elimination of career tracking and the elimination of ability grouping all proceed from bureaucratic convenience and risk-aversion. Schools immunize themselves from lawsuits over “disparate impact” by prescribing a uniform curriculum. Then they blame the home culture for the problems which schools create through the mismatch between students’ abilities and interests, on the one hand, and the homogenized curriculum, on the other.

    Schools which cannot get rid of troublemakers cannot get rid of trouble.

    Remember: Chubb and Moe originally published under the title “What Price Democracy? Politics, Markets, & America’s Schools”. Their politicaal analysis was subtle and related directly to the imperative toward bureaucratization in democratically-controlled institutions.

  12. I think it is probably false to think that “crazy people” and students are mutually exclusive groups. The child in question here is autistic and his behavior is certainly a function of his condition, so I don’t want to imply that he is crazy. However, I have many students, every year, who have psychiatric files longer than you. It’s just a fact that we are seeing more and more students with serious emotional and behavioral disorders in the schools and we are not psychologists or therapists. Sometimes we run up against the limits of what we know and sometimes there really is just no way to make a classroom environment “right” for some kids. LRE is now defined solely as the regular classroom. All children must be mainstreamed, regardless. I’m cynical enough to attribute this only partly to mistaken ideology — and largely to $$.

    FWIW, as a veteran of countless IEP meetings, I can say Curmudgeon is absolutely correct. If the isolation room was in the IEP, then the parents signed off on it. It may have been misused, but the proper procedure is to go in and amend the IEP.

  13. The idea that one must “exhaust” all recourse before suing whilst a child goes through this day after day is crazy in and of itself! If a PARENT locked her child in a closet, good teachers, I’m sure you would tell the authorities. And rightly so. The law is not on the side of justice presently on this issue.

    The House has recently passed a federal bill mandating that public and private school students receive the same protections against restraint and seclusion than they could expect in a hospital or other institution.

    http://www.disabilityscoop.com/2010/02/24/doe-restraint-and-seclusion-summary/7119/

    It has yet to be voted on by the Senate. It was endorsed by both the NEA and the AFT. PDF:

    http://dodd.senate.gov/multimedia/2009/120909_SeclusionandRestraintSummary.pdf

    My own autistic son “Elf” was locked in a closet on several occasions. I am now very happily homeschooling him, but I am concerned for others still in the system.

  14. SuperSub says:

    Malcolm –
    Post #1 – I think you plagiarized yourself yet again with your canned response to any “school is bad” topic.
    Post #2 – While I disagree with your assumption that it is the schools which are responsible for the evils you describe, I do agree that many of the factors you listed are problematic, including the universal curriculum and homogeneous grouping. Yet, many of the individual student’s problems due arise to the home environment. I have a handful of students who openly admit each year in class that they spend their evenings doing drugs with their parents.

    Ultimately, this is a problem with mainstreaming. Schools without the right resources and staff (the worst of which are guidance and psychologists) to handle these students are driven to come up with ‘creative’ steps to manage the problem.

  15. Hmmm, it appears that schools as a prison might be a good analogy, though it doesn’t apply in all cases.

    1. We have compulsory attendance in the US, not compulsory education (i.e. – a kid may attend, but there is no way to insure that he or she will actually learn anything).

    2. Kids routinely leave school whenever they feel like it, regardless if schools have a ‘closed campus’ policy (which forbids students from leaving unless they have a doctor’s appointment, etc).

    3. Education has been on a slippery slope over the last 25 or so years, ever since the Plyler decision which the supreme court said that every student is ‘entitled’ to an education, regardless of immigration status (funny, the last I checked, the term ‘education’ isn’t in the US constitution) per the 14th amendment (equal protection under the law).

    4. Taxpayers are forced (yes, forced) to pay for schools and prisons, but for persons who have no children, and have paid taxes for 12 years after graduating from high school should be exempt from paying, as they would have fulfilled their obligation to contribute by paying taxes for 12 years, just as someone paid for their education.

    There are quite a few things which are the same between prisons and schools, but why do you think that alternative schooling is getting such a foothold in this country?

  16. (Supersub): “Post #1 – I think you plagiarized yourself yet again with your canned response to any ‘school is bad” topic’.”
    Yes. Inevitably. Observed flaws in the US State-monopoly system proceed from deeply flawed fundamental assumptions. Since most people in these school policy discussions do not question these assumptions, I usually start there. I read somewhere that when someone in the audience asked Paul Dirac to explain something he had said in a lecture, he reread the part of the lecture involved. I guess he thought that he had expressed the point as well as he could the first time around.

    (Supersub): “I do agree that many of the factors you listed are problematic, including the universal curriculum and homogeneous grouping. Yet, many of the individual student’s problems due arise to the home environment. I have a handful of students who openly admit each year in class that they spend their evenings doing drugs with their parents.”

    The degree to which you accept that a standardized curriculum is a problem sets a lower limit to the degree to which you must accept that State (government, generally) subsidies to schools, and worse, State operation of schools, cause problems. The State cannot subsidize education without a definition of “education”, but then students, parents, and teachers are bound by the State’s definition. State operation creates more problems, since while non-State organizations must operate within the law, State organizations must operate according to the law (regulations and policies).

  17. (Bill): “There are quite a few things which are the same between prisons and schools, but why do you think that alternative schooling is getting such a foothold in this country?”

    Twelve years of abusive incarceration have costs which increasing numbers of parents recognize. It does not take 12 years to teach a normal child to read and compute. Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom. State (government, generally) provision of History and Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers and electronic broadcast news media would be (are, in totalitarian countries).

  18. SuperSub says:

    Malcolm-
    Education has been funded by local and state governments for over a hundred years… and the idea of homogeneous curricula is relatively new.

  19. SuperSub says:

    Actually, to edit my last statement… enforcement of a homogeneous curricula is relatively new.

  20. Socialism sucks.

    Any policy which requires that all students move through a uniform curriculum at a uniform pace guarantees, for most students, a mismatch between the individual student’s interests and abilities, on the one hand, and the curriculum, on the other. Even if the system has one billion possible curricula to which it assigns students, a mismatch is guaranteed so long as remote authorities make the assignment.

    If we all have to wear the same size shoes, most people’s feet will hurt, whatever size shoes we wear. Democratic control does not change this. If shoemakers produce 100 or 1000 or 1,000,000 different combinations of length and width, still, most psople’s feet will hurt, so long as remote “experts” assign feet to shoes with no knowledge of the individual feet to be shod.

    The only process which reduces the mismatch between curricula and methods, on the one hand, and individual students, on the other, is a buffet, where parents, in the case of young children and, later, the students themselves determine the curriculum, and the pace and method of instruction. The wider the range of items on the buffet, the wider the variety of sizes of shoes in the store, the better the match. I go barefoot as much as possible. Homeschool.