The Youth Scare

Zero tolerance is not simply the effect of possibly ignorant adults who misunderstand data on youth violence; it is not simply the resulting social policy of ill-spirited adults who carelessly toe the line of pejorative media representations of youth; it is not simply another devastating practice of traditional top-down, corporate models of school governance. … [It is] all of these things, together.

—Christopher G. Robbins, Expelling Hope: The Assault on Youth and the Militarization of Schooling, p. 41.

Either teachers and administrators work with students and their communities as citizens involved in the construction of the public good, or they reproduce and exacerbate the erasure of the social contract and replace it with the carceral pact.

—Ibid., p. 85.

[I]f public schooling fails to assume the role of guarantor to democratic public life, can it be presumed that under the demands of an ever complex global society and without other institutions capable of assuming such a position, democratic public life stands a faint chance of being reproduced and, when necessary, reconstituted?

—Ibid., p. 151.

Every age has its “scare.” Scare gives meaning to a society trained toward cowardice. There’s been the Red Scare, the Black Scare, the Brown Scare, the Woman Scare, back to the Brown Scare, and now the Youth Scare. The culture of fear is critical, Christopher Robbins writes, in aiding “powerful social actors and institutions … squelch opposition to their interests … while diverting attention from and reinforcing the asymmetrical conditions of power that underpin and provoke social tensions.”

On January 14 earlier this year, a 15-year-old Irish immigrant, Phoebe Prince, was discovered, by her 12-year-old sister, dangling from a noose in a home closet. For months, following her arrival at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts, Prince took in invectives from all directions. Students—male and female—made known she was a “slut” and an “Irish whore.” In-person, and on Facebook, her tormentors swung hard. The day of death, just minutes away, a student had pelted a soda can her direction, from a passing car.

As news broke of this tragedy, outrage poured in—editorials, columns, radio shows, TV shows. Parents wanted to know why school officials failed to act decisively when lives were at stake, why abuse on this level was tolerated so long, why Prince had to end her life before those who most mattered began listening.

Then the rage ratcheted, and fell upon the students whom stand accused of tormenting a fellow student into suicide. The esteemed moralists, on the Right and Left, drove out at once to condemn this rising, immoral generation of “predators,” who share none of the wholesome, family “values” their parents internalized since birth, who must have picked up their principles from MTV and VH1 and Rap music since, you know, bullying can only be traced back through the last 10 years or so. On cable news shows, the moralists called for stiffening of “anti-bullying” and “zero tolerance” laws—to put end to this practice without tarry.

(Sensationalism sells.)

No doubt Prince’s life wouldn’t have cut short so tragically if greater administrative responsibility attended her cause; but if anyone truly thinks the further criminalization and militarization of schools would surrender into its coffin the long-running tradition of bullying, and that only police officers and metal detectors and CCTV cameras and K-9s would “make this stop,” Prince might have died in vain.

Christopher Robbins’ Expelling Hope drives this point home deftly. For years, most public schools have employed zero tolerance policies to keep students in check; and, for years, little progress has been accounted for, even with ever increasing security apparatuses—physical and technological. With some schools now featuring “sting operations” and “undercover agents,” students have only learned “quickly that both their teachers and the police … are not primarily involved in school life to guide and protect them, but to set up conditions that make it easier for professionals and other authority figures to find, frame, and forbid certain students from school life.”

Zero tolerance for guns! drugs! and crime! Hear the proponents’ cry. But behind this façade, Robbins writes, is zero tolerance for children—and the mistakes they make. School officials storm into students’ lockers any time of day—Fourth Amendment be goddamned—reinforcing how “little autonomy” students have “to resist and question” authorized abuse. And students wallow at the crack of school hierarchy, limiting attention to their concerns. For poor Black or Brown kids, the die is already cast: they walk into school Day 1, hate what they see, respond intelligently, and leave school grounds in handcuffs. And when any uppity activist or parent dares question why more money goes the way of suburban schools, officials gamely open up their special notebooks, and point out the number of tardy, absent, suspended, expelled, and arrested students as perfect justification.

Of course, as Robbins notes, racism wins again, for the “crimes allegedly committed by Black youth are presented as the consequences of biological pathologies or cultural deficits, whereas those allegedly perpetrated by White youth are typically framed as responses to middle-class alienation or the consequences of proverbial teen angst gone mad.” We hold this truth to be self-evident: that a “densely corporatized media environment has no interest in presenting youth as needy, well-intentioned, curious, meaning-seeking beings.”

When thinkers take this issue seriously—the unveiled link between media misrepresentation and pugnacious polices—perhaps some serious questions would find answers: like, How did society “come to a point” where zero tolerance is “even thinkable”? How did anti-Youth legislations pass as “law of land” without much murmur from a society ostensibly concerned of the plights of its children? How did Youth in but a few decades turn from hope for “the future” to hoodlums undeserving of a future?

Amazing, ain’t it? Society has fucked with kids so badly over the past few years that it’s now scared shitless. Any moment kids might pop. A hit dog will holler! the axiom warns. So now society erects maximum security prisons, juvenile halls, and detention centers to stave off, as long as possible, a generation so abused, maligned, and disdained that revenge seems the only righteous response.

Any peep or squeak these days can be cause for suspension or expulsion. Confrontation with an abusive police officer can lead to immediate arrest and time behind bars. Some students face abuse so dehumanizing they self-expel; others can count on principals to plant drugs in their lockers to expedite expulsion; others would be branded “baby Rikers” or told, “That girl has no ass,” or even sexually assaulted, by officers employed to serve and protect them.

Today, most public schools enlist several surveillance services to monitor students’ every move. Some schools even require students pass through metal detectors and security checkpoints, and empty their book bags and take off their shoes and surrender their belts, before advancing to learn the wonders of Pythagoras’ theorem and the importance of the Gettysburg address. And when they arrive in class, teachers hold one hand up to the blackboard, and the other fixed upon the panic button or walkie-talkie. One unsolicited sound, and the student is hauled out of class to the local precinct.

In Expelling Hope, Robbins mentions Troops to Teachers, a federal program established by the Department of Defense in 1994 and reinvigorated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which recruits retiring military officials to fill up low-income schools. God’s mercy fall on that poor kid who decides to speak out of turn on the day this soldier’s pent-up rage or hallucinations or shell shocks flare up untamed. All fits, however, with a war-culture in which “social identities” find utmost definition: “War [on] Terror, War on Homelessness, War on Drugs, War on the Poor, and the alleged cultural wars.”

As the War on Terror offers language (and manual) to maintain school security, no wonder uncooperative students can (and must) be disappeared with haste—the better to keep other students abreast of zero tolerance for subversion or insurrection. Students must understand, as a famous President bellowed not too long ago, “You’re either with us, or against us.” Those “with” enjoy the privileges of citizenship—they get to shop and visit the theater undisturbed. Those “against” must be weeded out with swiftness, and excluded entirely—from a “political culture that progressively values neither workers nor citizens, but consumers and criminals.”

Robbins asks: “How will excluding a student now help a teacher reach the most pressing and immediate test standard? How will excluding a student absolve teachers and society of the responsibility for past social, political, and economic relationships that produced the disruptive unwanted behavior?”

Answers don’t rush out as readily as calls for greater “regulation” of schooling: longer days, shorter nights, and even conservative dress codes—as though tucked-in uniform “can fill the social and educational gaps promoted by racism, malnutrition, poverty, community violence, and structural violence.”

In the past, much of this foolishness faced vehement pushback, but fewer complaints find volume these days because in a Race-to-the-Top era, schools must compete for cash. And public schooling, no longer a “given and precondition for democratic social order,” falls vulnerable to the machinations of “an iniquitous market order.”

When the new administration cut the ribbon late 2008, and promptly selected former Chicago Public Schools “CEO” Arne Duncan as its broker, many liberals flailed away, disgusted that a president-elect, ostensibly “liberal” (and, to hear many on the Right tell it, “Marxist” and “Socialist” and “Communist”), would put in a corporate serf to rectify the greatest educational disaster of a generation. They might have lost track of reality, however—as vicious education legislations have always solicited the help of both Wall Street parties. Robbins reminds:

Zero tolerance was a bipartisan strategy, constructed at the contradictory but powerful interstices of neoliberalism and social conservatism. It deals with the social symptoms of a new economic order, erasing the social contract, and perpetuating racism in a color-blind consumer society. … It has, in a very deep sense, reinforced the structures of fear and violence [people] inhabit in a privatized and individualized social order.

Youth deserve more out of life than the reality frisking them and the future awaiting them. Society has, fantastically, found way to convince itself children shouldn’t factor in—in any conversations of struggle, of survival, of success. But we certainly can hope for better. In fact, we must. And hope in this sense, not some cheap political slogan seducing millions disaffected with life, but personal impulse engineered by collective action: “the composite of private dreams translated into public visions and commitments, one that expands human possibility.”

“What would hope be if it did not refer implicitly to youth?” Robbins asks.

So, shall we expel or enhance it?

TOLU OLORUNDA is a cultural critic. He can be reached at: