Criminalization of Students

Front door of school building

Hyper criminalization has recently become a prevalent issue in our society. The homeless are criminalized for basic behaviors required to survive, such as sleeping in public places. Gang members, through gang injunctions, are criminalized for walking down the street with a fellow gang member. Police have legally legitimate reasons to stop and question almost anyone in low-income, primarily black neighborhoods.

However, another group has also recently become hyper criminalized, their everyday behavior now framed as a threat to public safety. That group is students, specifically those in inner-city public schools. That is where many schools have been labeling normal teenage behavior as criminal, tracking so-called “at-risk” students into the criminal justice system.

Basic psychological principles demonstrate the effect the criminalization of students can have on their likelihood to succeed academically. The concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy shows us that when students are treated as people who cannot be trusted and require constant monitoring, they are far less likely to perform well in school. This idea is backed in research; the American Psychological Association found that the use of suspensions and expulsions in schools has a negative relationship with academic achievement. Policymakers and school officials have failed to recognize the unintended consequences of policies designed to increase public safety. These policies are causing students to believe they are incapable of academic success and instead belong in the prison system.

Even more unfortunate is the demographic of students targeted. Poor, inner-city public schools often have predominantly black or Latino populations, meaning policies of criminalization in schools are systematically identifying blacks and Latinos as threats to school safety without evidence of higher levels of violence. According to Brown’s article on solutions to criminalizing students, blacks are suspended and expelled at rates disproportionate to their rates of misbehavior, which are comparable to the rates of other subgroups.

A school’s “zero tolerance policies,” discussed in Heitzeg’s article on “Criminalizing Education,” are counterproductive in achieving other goals lawmakers have with regards to education policy. Most notably, they undermine decades of efforts to decrease the achievement gap, or the disparity between performance of different subgroups — such as between races. By targeting blacks at a higher rate than other students, policies criminalizing certain types of youth behavior are disrupting the academic careers of black students at a far higher rate than of whites ones.

The criminalization of students in schools is yet another demonstration of hyper criminalization within our society. Students effectively learn that they belong in the criminal justice system, not in a school. Low self-efficacy is reinforced when students are arrested for behavior typical of their stage of development, and the most severe effects of these laws are seen in black students. We need to recognize not only the negative effects of criminalizing policies but also the discrimination inherent within them. Hyper criminalization needs to be addressed, especially when it is affecting our students and their education.


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