We’ve seen a movement arise in recent months, led by Black Lives Matter, demanding racial and social justice following the police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis in May. Protesters have filled the streets of hundreds of cities and towns, calling for an end to America’s institutional racism and the defunding of police.

As part of the national discussion, this question arises: Do #BlackLivesMatter in schools? The two authors of this post, Subini Annamma and David Stovall, say the answer is no and take a deep dive into the subject to explain why.

Annamma is an associate professor of education at Stanford University, and Stovall is a professor of African American studies and criminology, law and justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

They wrote the piece with footnotes, which I am leaving in to make it easier to see the list of source material and further your reading on these subjects.

By Subini Annamma and David Stovall

In calls to defund and abolish police and prisons, some are suggesting those resources be reallocated to schooling. We agree that abolishing punitive systems and reinvesting in the community is necessary. But we also need to ask: Do #BlackLivesMatter in schools?

As scholars who study the relationship between youth, schools and prisons, we believe the answer is no. But there is distinction between schooling and education.

Beth Richie — a professor of African American and other studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and head of the school’s Criminology, Law, and Justice Department — uses the term “prison nation” to label how laws, policies and practices target marginalized people for criminalization. We argue that schooling is part of prison nation, imbued with pathologizing mindsets rooted in labeling, surveillance, and punishment, which criminalize black students.[1]

Disinvestment echoes through all services that schooling provides — what the activist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as “organized abandonment.” At the same time, schools have taken on a policing function, pathologizing interactions with black youth.

The “school-to-prison” pipeline does not adequately describe the role of schooling in prison nation. We are witnessing a school-prison nexus: Schools work within a web of institutions, policies, and practices that funnel black youth into prisons.[2] What’s more, depending on where you attend school, it no longer operates as a “pathway” to prison but instead as a de facto prison.

Increased spending on police, surveillance and zero-tolerance policies has made American schools look and feel more like prisons.[3] Research has found that making schools more prisonlike is not about safety; it is a choice. “Schools serving primarily students of color are more likely to rely on more intense surveillance measures than other schools,” Jason P. Nance of the University of Florida reported in an article in the Emory Law Journal.[4]

Youth and community-directed efforts to remove police in schools, such as Oakland’s Black Organizing Project, have shown how police do not increase students’ feelings of safety. According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, black youth are “15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school”[5] — and this disparity is not based solely on differences in behavior, as scholars at the University of Georgia reported in a systematic literature review of school discipline research. This does not vary by gender; Black girls are suspended at a rate five times that of white girls,[6] increasing their chances of pushout and incarceration.[7]

Pathologizing also infuses other schooling practices and policies. Special education, created as an opportunity for disabled youth to be educated in their communities, has become another way to criminalize Black youth. Black disabled youth are more likely to be educated in segregated classrooms[8] and less likely to graduate than disabled white students.[9] Twenty percent of black boys and 27 percent of black boys with disabilities are suspended,[10] reflecting how disciplinary rates for black disabled youth are higher than for their non-disabled black peers.

Queer and gender nonconforming black youth are also disciplined at high rates and often not protected by the safe spaces created for white LGBTQ youth.[11] Advanced Placement and gifted classes largely exclude black youth. Students left out of gifted programs and those pushed into special education get reductive curriculum, teaching that values compliance over learning, and relationships that prioritize surveillance.

In her book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” the academic and activist Angela Davis writes that “when children attend schools that place a greater value on discipline and security than on knowledge and intellectual development, they are attending prep schools for prison.” In many communities, her observations have become the rule over the exception.

This is part of a historical trend. School discipline policies and legislation have bent toward criminalization of black youth since integration.[12] Special education was used post-segregation as another route to remove black youth from opportunities.[13]

Some argue we just need better testing or a better system to distribute Advanced Placement seats. But like policing, many education reforms being championed have been ineffective. These reforms are often underfunded and poorly executed, and they underserve black students: They permit the hoarding of opportunity for some to continue while restricting others to remedial curriculum, problematic teaching and compliance-based relationships.

Schooling has a reckoning to do: It does not enact #BlackLivesMatter in pedagogy, policy or practices. Yet there are educators and students resisting this criminalization. We find hope in abolitionist imaginaries in education that are culturally sustaining, such as hip-hop as a site for curricular engagement, DisCrit pedagogies that recognize disability as a political identity with a lineage of resistance[14] and ethnic studies curriculum —— spaces where educators are in solidarity with students.

We look to abolition as we freedom dream what education can be. Angela Davis argued that an abolitionist imaginary must consider “revitalization of education at all levels.” Along with W.E.B. Du Bois, Crystal Laura, Bettina Love, Erica Meiners, Savannah Shange, Carla Shedd, we have written about schooling’s criminalization of black youth and abolition in education because we have witnessed the damage schooling can do. We have listened to youth and communities about what is not working and what revolutionary possibilities exist.

Abolitionist imaginaries are not new, but they are more necessary than ever to embrace education over schooling. We need to listen to students and communities to create education where #BlackLivesMatter.

[6] Ibid.