Two months into virtual schooling, it appears the school-to-prison pipeline has rebranded as the Zoom-to-prison pipeline.
Take Isaiah Elliot as an example. Elliot is a 12-year old Black boy with disabilities from Colorado who made national headlines last month after he was suspended for five days and questioned at his home by police for displaying a neon green toy gun. The teacher saw him move the toy and told the school’s principal that Elliot was “waiving around a toy gun” and that she “assumed it was a toy gun but was not certain.” Despite Elliot’s mother emailing the teacher that it was just a toy, the police came to Elliot’s house. The officer entered his bedroom, confirmed the item was a toy, and told him he could have faced criminal charges for “Interference with the staff, faculty, or students of educational institutions.”
Elliot’s story, which happened on only the third day of school, underscores a crisis of student and family privacy happening across the country. As students expose their bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens to their classes, teachers have an unprecedented view into a student’s family life. Many districts have doubled-down on the punishment and surveillance tactics that have characterized American education the last 30 years and have used the virtual window into students’ homes to justify punishments that make an already difficult time nearly impossible for students.
To support students, schools must make an immediate commitment to building a trauma-sensitive virtual environment that keeps students engaged and builds positive relationships with teachers and fellow students. More concretely, schools should put a moratorium on referring student misbehavior to police and amend student conduct codes to be more flexible to each student’s unique situation. As one Illinois teacher put it: “If we’re treating [students] with dignity, I think we’ll get a lot more out of them.”
The turn towards overly punitive virtual discipline measures follows decades of zero-tolerance school discipline policies and increasing referrals of students to police for routine misbehavior. The “school-to-prison pipeline” characterizes the way these policies push disproportionately students of color out of school and towards jail by imposing suspensions, criminal citations, and even arrests for misbehavior such as classroom disruption or sagging one’s pants. More broadly, the presence of police on campus reflects a paradigm shift where schools funnel more and more money to security and away from educational resources for students. In poor and majority-Black schools, the classroom becomes a site of constant surveillance and punishment that perpetuates generational inequality by depriving children of their chance to learn.
Across the country, schools have expanded pre-pandemic disciplinary policies that disproportionately harm students of color. For example, the majority of school districts require students to keep their videos on during class, and punishments for violating the policies range from a call home to lowering a grade to suspension. Relatedly, many schools continue to enforce dress codes over Zoom. Routine classroom disruptions continue to suspend Black students at alarmingly disproportionate rates. Even more dramatically, police officers and family welfare officials have made house visits when a child fails to appear in class, even though the vast majority of absences are caused by insufficient technological support for poor families. For students subject to these tactics, each disciplinary action will substantially increase the chance a student drops out and the likelihood of future incarceration. These effects are likely to be magnified in remote learning as each disciplinary action will only widen the gap between the student and the school community.
Beyond sustaining racist disciplinary practices, virtual classrooms present a unique, and potentially more troubling, challenge for students. Constitutional protection of students’ rights—privacy, freedom of speech, due process—is typically greater outside of the classroom. So, for example, if a student is just walking down the street in his neighborhood, a police officer usually needs probable cause and a warrant or consent to search his backpack. In school, however, a teacher or principal may search the exact same student’s backpack so long as the search is “reasonable under the circumstances.” But what about a case like Elliot? The teacher sees something troubling, tells her assistant principal, and next thing Elliot knows, the police are in his bedroom. What if his dad refused to let the police in? What legal protections would the family have?
For families in communities of color, having legitimate expectations of privacy in their lives can be of life and death consequences. Referencing horrific instances of police brutality, Elliot’s mother stated poignantly, “I can’t believe you [the teacher] called the police on a young African-American male in today’s society . . . the police would go kick down [our] door.” Even if the police encounter remains peaceful, a visit from police to a Black student can lead to stigmatization, resentment towards school, and the internalization of a negative self-perception that the student will carry into adulthood. Policing in virtual schools is yet another show of force that conditions marginalized kids to accept invasive policing as parts of their every day lives.
In fairness, I am incredibly sympathetic to a school’s position. In the post-Columbine education world, there is tremendous pressure on schools to keep students safe. Over the last few years, many schools increased their funding for online surveillance to track threats to school safety. For example, one product used by schools, “Flight Sights,” can analyze all social media posts and content within a given geographical radius and see what is being said about a school. Now, facing an incredibly difficult learning environment, sparse resources, and an anxious student body, rigid discipline is a straightforward way to try to keep order in online classes.
The problem, however, is that “school safety” is frequently a pretext for racialized state violence. Strict security measures, such as online surveillance of social media or facial recognition cameras in schools, are more present in low-income schools and students of color are more likely to be disciplined through these technologies. Surveillance early in a child’s life, combined with other racial disparities affecting childhood development, cause Black and brown kids to internalize the label of troublemaker or deviant. They then act out to meet those negative expectations. This creates a cycle where school surveillance treats kids of color like perpetual suspects until, eventually, they get the message.
Fortunately, online technology offers teachers an array of options beyond formal discipline. For example, teachers can mute students interrupting class. Additionally, instead of requiring videos, teachers can use polls to gauge engagement. Regarding safety, it is important for schools to recognize the limits and dangers of police responses. A one-on-one conversation with a student about the toy gun, or other worrisome material in a student’s background, is always preferable to a house visit from the police.
It must also be recognized that this is an incredibly difficult time for teachers. Friends I know from my time teaching before law school relay stories of long hours, stress, and constant confusion about school policy. Many of them are just trying to make it through the school day, just like the rest of us. For me, though, this only underscores the imperative of defunding school police. Schools must shift their focus away from security and towards education and give teachers the support and resources they desperately need.
For too many kids across the country, school has become a mechanism of racialized control. Online classrooms force them to expose the most intimate areas of their homes. They are subject to rigid conduct codes and the possibility of police surveillance. This is not a model for a successful education experience. It is time to ensure kids and teachers have the support they need through empathy and patience, not punishment and control.