What about Schools? Rethinking Public Education’s Place within the Carceral State

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on Teaching

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 3:00 PM - 3:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Crime and Violence; Education; Urban and Suburban


Public education and incarceration occupy seemingly opposite poles in relation to American democracy. The former is often viewed as an essential gateway to civic inclusion, while the latter is recognized as the ultimate form of civic exclusion. Yet historians have insufficiently explored the relationship between education and the carceral state. This is particularly pronounced for metropolitan contexts, where historians of policing, incarceration, and urban and suburban change frequently overlook public schools. This panel urges historians, policymakers, educators, and American residents to more carefully consider the role that schools, school policy, and discourse about schools played in carceral expansion. Specifically, these papers illuminate the under-scrutinized relationship between education and the carceral state by examining contests over space and power that occurred within and around urban and suburban schools from the desegregation era forward. In Boston, officials responded to the implementation of court-ordered desegregation in the mid-1970s by disproportionately suspending African American students and expanding the police presence in schools. Similarly in Louisiana, a 1974 juvenile death penalty case from an industrial suburb of New Orleans demonstrates how responses to perceived “unrest” within desegregating schools criminalized black youth and contributed to the state’s skyrocketing incarceration rate. In suburban Prince George’s County, meanwhile, white policymakers and residents began remapping racialized understandings of “suburban” and “urban” space in the 1970s as they shifted their attention from fears about desegregation to concerns over lawlessness, order, and discipline within schools. The federal government also influenced the shift to more punitive school practices as Ronald Reagan and subsequent presidential administrations embraced school discipline as a central plank in their educational civil rights agendas. Moving from cities to suburbs and from analyses of policy at the school, municipal, state, and federal level, this panel examines public schools as key nodes in the nation’s punitive response to political insurgency and social upheaval.

Papers Presented

Education for Imprisonment: Youth, Race, and Incarceration in the World’s Prison Capital

This paper explores the United States’ systematic confinement of youth of color through the experiences of Gary Tyler, a black teenager whom an all-white jury convicted of first-degree murder following a 1974 racial brawl at his desegregating high school in Destrehan, Louisiana. Despite significant questions about Tyler’s guilt, his insistence upon his innocence, and robust activism challenging his conviction and the broader criminalization of black youth, Tyler spent more than four decades in prison. He secured his release only after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling permitted the retroactive application of the court’s 2012 ban on mandatory life sentences for juvenile homicide offenders. Tyler’s story, therefore, provides a window into Louisiana and the nation’s long history of racialized punishment. Since understanding that history involves looking beyond a single individual or moment, this paper situates Tyler’s experiences within a historical arc stretching from the late-eighteenth-century proliferation of slave labor camps throughout Louisiana’s river parishes to the 2016 Montgomery decision that enabled his release. It pays particular attention to the role that juvenile justice reforms and responses to perceived “unrest” within desegregating schools during the 1970s played in Louisiana developing the highest per-capita incarceration rate of any place on earth. Focusing on the criminalization of youth of color within and outside of schools, it seeks to illuminate the historical circumstances that fueled mass incarceration and Louisiana’s long reign as the world’s prison capital.

Presented By
Walter C. Stern, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Suspending Integration: Boston Public Schools and the Making of a Police State

Boston schools issued higher numbers of suspensions with greater racial disparities during desegregation. In Boston’s first year of desegregation (1974—1975), the total number of suspensions more than doubled and, while African-American students comprised 38 percent of the school population, they represented 58 percent of all school suspensions and consistently received longer punishments for the same offenses as their white peers. The high rates of suspension and the racial disparities within them continued for more than a decade. Compounding the increases in suspensions was the expanded reach of Boston’s police in and around schools as Mayor Kevin White deployed half of the city’s police force into schools before eventually creating a separate safety and security department for schools. As Boston’s police force continued to expand in the 1970s, it increased its presence in the lives of the city’s young people, both inside and outside of school. This proposed paper studies how education and law enforcement policies in Boston merged in the lives of young people from the 1960s into the 1970s. Using court documents, student codes of discipline, oral histories, government reports, and newspaper reporting, this paper analyzes how the racialized construction of school disciplinary policy during desegregation furthered the criminalization of Black youth; led to high suspension, arrest, and dropout rates; and reinforced the over-policing of segregated Black neighborhoods. This analysis illuminates how desegregation efforts and resistance to them spurred the punitive turn in urban schools and how Democratic politicians combined education and law enforcement to bolster carceral expansion.

Presented By
Matt Kautz, Teachers College, Columbia University

School as Dangerous Spaces: Desegregation and Discipline in Sub/urban Maryland, 1973–2012

Using a post-structural discourse analysis approach toward primary source documents to consider how space and race are co-constitutive, this paper argues that Prince George’s County Maryland’s 1973 policy of busing for racial integration, reconfigured, but did not fundamentally alter, the relationship between race and space in the public imaginary. During busing, spatial productions that emerged and took root in the late 50s and early 60s—both material and symbolic—of Black and white neighborhoods and of the people who lived, worked, and went to school in them, influenced discourses of school discipline. Busing for racial integration was a signaling event that shifted public sentiment away from a fear of “desegregation” and toward an expression of the problem with Prince George’s County schools being one of lawlessness, an anxiety that still pervades local representations of the majority-Black county in ways that demand that we re-theorize the labels of both “urban,” and “suburban.” This paper will ask several questions: How did concepts of lawlessness, order, and discipline relate to racialized understandings of space in school and neighborhood settings? How did people—policymakers, public planners, and residents—come to understand and articulate the relationship between space and race during and after busing? How was this relationship manifested in approaches that rationalized discipline, order, and control in schools from the mid-1970s through the disciplinary reforms of 2012?

Presented By
Deirdre Mayer Dougherty, Knox College

“The Most Overlooked Civil Rights Issues of the 1980s”: School Discipline, and Crime-Control in an Era of Reform

While a number of studies on contemporary school discipline policies examine how local discipline practices of schools and districts reproduce educational inequities, less is understood about the ways federal policy makers have encouraged and supported the adoption of stricter and more punitive school practices. This paper utilizes federal archival documents to unearth how federal policy makers responded to and “borrowed strength” from local efforts to promote a national agenda for stricter and more punitive school reforms. More specifically, federal policy officials in the Reagan administration used local reports, teachers in urban schools, strict urban disciplinarians, and a new movement for “educational excellence” to shape a national agenda to impose stricter more punitive school rules—a campaign officials rationalized as one of the “most significant, and perhaps the most overlooked, civil rights issues of the 1980's.” School discipline concerns—like the broader school reform agenda for standards and accountability—continued to evolve particularly as President William Clinton made school discipline and crime-control primary objectives of both his education reform and urban reform agendas. Ultimately, this paper tells the story of how crime control and education reform merged to be part of federal policy makers’ renewed educational “civil rights” agenda as federal education dollars funded school police, surveillance technology and zero-tolerance policies that had long harmed and would continue to limit the rights and lives of students such policies claimed to be in service of.

Presented By
Mahasan V. Chaney, Brown University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Walter C. Stern, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Walter C. Stern is Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, 1764-1960, which received the 2018 William Prize for the best book on Louisiana history. His teaching and research focus on the historical intersection of race and education in the nineteenth- and twentieth century US, with an emphasis on metropolitan areas and the US South. Much of his work considers how state actions pertaining to education, housing, and criminal justice historically structured opportunity and inequality and gave material meaning to the concept of race. In 2018, he was lead author of a historians’ amicus brief in support of a Louisiana Supreme Court case challenging that state’s felony disfranchisement law, and he provided testimony to the Louisiana legislature in support of a bill that restored voting rights to roughly 37,000 ex-offenders. He is currently working on a book about school desegregation and the making of mass incarceration.

Presenter: Mahasan V. Chaney, Brown University
Mahasan Chaney is a Post-doctorate researcher in Race and Ethnicity at Brown University. Her research explores the "disciplining" and punitive functions of U.S. social and education policy. She is currently working on a manuscript that details how post 1965 federal policy makers have used federal education “opportunity programs” to impose more disciplined and ultimately punitive school policies. Mahasan completed her PhD in education policy at the University of California Berkeley. She has previously published work in Critical Studies in Education and is a 2019 National Academy of Education/Spencer dissertation fellow.

Presenter: Deirdre Mayer Dougherty, Knox College
Deirdre Dougherty is an assistant professor of educational studies at Knox College where she teaches History and Philosophy of Education. Prior to pursuing her PhD, she taught middle school in Prince George's County, Maryland. Deirdre is interested in the historical roots of educational inequality, geographic approaches to educational history, and school de/segregation. Her work has been published in Educational Studies, The Journal of Urban History, and Media History and she is a coauthor of the book Making Integration Work: Lessons from Morris, forthcoming from Teachers College Press.

Presenter: Matt Kautz, Teachers College, Columbia University
Matt Kautz is a doctoral candidate in History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to pursuing his doctorate, Matt was a high school teacher in Detroit, MI and Chicago, IL. He has received numerous awards to support his studies, including the Elien Cutler Endowed Scholarship and the Albert Shanker Research Fellowship. Matt’s dissertation focuses on changes in school discipline and law enforcement during the era of desegregation and how changes in these policy domains merged in the lives of young people.