Quick to Punish: An Examination of the School to Prison Pipeline for Marginalized Youth

By Salole, Abigail Tsionne; Abdulle, Zakaria | Canadian Review of Social Policy, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Quick to Punish: An Examination of the School to Prison Pipeline for Marginalized Youth


Salole, Abigail Tsionne, Abdulle, Zakaria, Canadian Review of Social Policy


From surveillance cameras; to hall monitors; to an increased emphasis on student identification; to police officers stationed within schools, some Toronto-area high schools are looking increasingly similar to their American counterparts. This security-based response in schools indicates a wider shift towards an 'ideology of insecurity' (Wacquant, 1999). In the United States the trend toward widespread security measures in schools began with the enactment of the Gun Free Schools Act in 1994. The federal law required the mandatory expulsion of students in possession of firearms on school grounds and within a few years 50 states aligned their policies with the act in order to access government funding (Hennault, 2001). Safety reforms in the United States and Canada were instituted under the supposition that they would enhance safety in high schools. In Ontario, under Mike Harris' Conservative government, the Safe Streets Act (1999) and the Safe Schools Act (2000) were introduced under the palatable premise of keeping schools and streets safe. Yet, fifteen years after these two acts passed though provincial legislature, it is well-documented that these two safety policies failed to enhance safety and, in fact, exacerbated the criminalization of marginalized groups (see for example Bhattacharjee, 2003; O'Grady, Gaetz & Buccieri, 2013).

In this article we explore the complex relationship between education and the criminal justice system for marginalized and racialized youth1. Just as students' relationship with school is complicated, so is their relationship with safety measures. For example, for some young people, school can be a protective factor from criminal activity. For these youth, school provides stability, inclusion and a pathway out of an 'at risk' life, protecting them from involvement with the criminal justice system. For other youth, surveillance and disciplinary practices leaves them feeling disaffected from the education system, with a potential long-term negative outcome of involvement with the criminal justice system. Once these youth have a criminal record, barriers to accessing education continue, despite strong evidence that education can encourage desistence from crime. Concerns about public schools losing their ground, as safe havens are longstanding and for some scholars are indicative of a general punitive shift. Giroux (2012) writes:

Underlying the repeated decisions to turn away from helping young people is the growing sentiment that youths, particularly minorities of color and class, constitute a threat to adults and the only effective way to deal with them is to subject them to mind-crushing punishment. Students being miseducated, criminalized, and arrested through a form of penal pedagogy in prison-type schools provide a grave reminder of the degree to which the ethos of containment and punishment now creeps into spheres of everyday life that were largely immune in the past to this type of state and institutional violence (p. xxv).

Giroux's work, which is mainly focused on the American context, provokes questions about whether the same critique is applicable to the Greater Toronto Area. More broadly, this line of inquiry also raises the question: Who is kept safe and protected by school safety reform? Drawing on a governmentality approach, we examine how neoliberal governance enhances disciplinary connections between schools and prisons. By placing youth, often described as 'atrisk', at the center of this investigation, we draw attention to bifurcated approaches to youth in which more privileged youth are governed through gentle strategies and support from school, families and social services. Meanwhile more marginalized youth, like the youth participants in this investigation, are governed through more punitive and disciplinary strategies resulting in the perception that there is a distinct absence of support for them. This paper begins with an overview of the analytical context for this research by examining broad theoretical underpinnings. …

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