Schools should represent the idyllic sandbox of a hopeful future. Then, they are society’s incubators where young people together begin to envision a shared world. Instead, schools often become like colanders, meant to separate high and low “achievers.” By bolstering the myth of the meritocracy, education then provides a flimsy justification for inequality. It is lauded as the cure-all for the plague of poverty. In this case, education legitimizes injustice, instead of offering ways to combat it.

In the past few decades, the criminal justice system has become more and more deeply enmeshed in American education. Last summer, the Oakland Unified school board voted unanimously to end police presence in schools, taking an important step towards ending criminalization in schools, and one which should be emulated throughout the nation. But if we hope to disentangle education from criminal justice, we have to find the roots of their union: a deep attraction between the two systems. What is the intent of the American school?

Grace, a Black high schooler in Michigan, was incarcerated for not doing her remote homework. Isaiah, a Black seventh-grade boy, had the police called to his home for playing with a toy gun on his Zoom class. When it comes to behavior and discipline, educators often become unwitting agents of the criminal justice system. Educator Henry Giroux called education a struggle over what kind of future we want for young people. We might specify: our education system decides which young people are entitled to which future.

In preschool, white students are almost four times less likely to be suspended than their Black peers. A total of 44% of youth in jail are Black, despite making up 16% of the population. Similarly, Black girls make up 16% of the school-age population, but 42% of those expelled. In some states, white youth are 10 times less likely to be incarcerated than their Black peers. Punitive practices, brutally effective at disaffecting students from their learning, are ingrained with discriminatory biases. How else can we reckon with anti-Black policies on hairstyling?

It has become en vogue to acknowledge the existence of “systemic racism.” But acknowledgment is not enough. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.

Our schools are still segregated. That is, most white students go to schools with mostly white students, and most Black and brown students go to schools with mostly Black and brown students.

For a segment of students, a primary goal of schools becomes teaching compliance and normalizing control. Schools covertly integrate the carceral system and even mild misbehavior becomes a criminal affront. Viewing schools through the framework of productivity betrays the soul of education. Instituting compliance becomes the priority.

Systemic, or structural, problems require a shift of focus from individuals to the structure itself. Yet initiatives to tackle systemic issues are often myopic: hiring a new staff member or enlisting the help of an under-resourced community organization. Efforts to fix schools cannot end at asking individual actors to bring about sweeping change. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.

Democratize Schools

As Paolo Freire said, part of the learning process requires students come to be masters of their own learning. That can’t happen in a school where students are treated like criminals. It also can’t happen when students have no control over what they learn and how they learn it.

Students must exercise power in schools. Necessarily, this process will take different forms under different conditions. But the primary engine of effective change is anempowered community. When participating in youth organizing organizations, for example, students regain a measure of autonomy over their lives, in and out of school. Democracy stems from the community. But to truly embody democratic schooling, student power must be centered.

Decriminalize Schools

Suspensions, expulsions, and arrests hurt kids. They make schools less safe. And they are expensive and ineffective. We have to get rid of zero-tolerance policies and invest in social-emotional practices and compassionate responses.

Fund for the future

Scholars point out that most of the workaround initiatives like restorative justice stem from local, under-resourced organizations. Public schools need full funding for effective practices which actually make schools and students safer, encourage learning, and help create compassionate school communities.

Lawmakers have begun to recognize the need to challenge school discipline practices. Calls for a “New Deal for Education” counteract decades of underfunding and privatization of schools, and the increasing tendency to sacrifice education at the altar of the free market. Others have called for an end to criminalization in schools, and investment in social-emotional support. We need a radical and wholesale commitment to and investment in democratic public education. Schools must pursue the now revolutionary goal to empower all students in their learning. Hopefully, they will build a more just world tomorrow.