“Tough Love” How One High-Performing Charter School Implicitly Criminalizes Youth of Color

Jackson, Shawon [Browse]
Senior thesis
80 pages


Murakawa, Naomi [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year
Summary note
Recently, policymakers and educators have debated the efficacy of suspensions and expulsions – exclusionary discipline – in schools across the country. Researchers have found that exclusionary discipline increases a student’s likelihood of dropping out of high school and becoming involved with the criminal justice system. Some scholars have described this process as the “school-to-prison” pipeline. In addition to sending students to prison, schools may function as prisons themselves. From police in the hallways to metal detectors at their front doors, some schools have created prison-like environments to promote school safety. In practice, researchers have found that these “safety measures” criminalize students more than they protect them. Even still, there are more implicit ways in which schools criminalize students on a daily basis: requiring students to be silent in the hallway and walk in a regimented fashion; assigning demerits for minor uniform infractions; punishing students for answering a question in class without being called on, even if they are not speaking over anyone else. While many may view these acts as forms of discipline, there comes a point where discipline goes too far – when caring for a child leads to criminalizing them. It is difficult to understand where to draw the line between care and criminalization. Only after speaking directly with students in schools can one understand the ways in which strict school discipline policies implicitly criminalize youth, especially youth of color. To explore the relationship between school discipline and implicit forms of criminalization, I conducted ethnographic research at a high-performing charter school in a mid-sized city in the northeast: the Young Scholars Academy. YSA has recently adopted a set of strict disciplinary practices to create more order within the school. As such, it serves as a compelling case study to understand the impact of strict discipline on students. After conducting 14 visits to YSA, spending over 30 hours in and outside of classrooms, and speaking with over 40 students, teachers, and administrators, I argue that YSA educators are implicitly criminalizing their students by implementing overly strict school discipline policies. They do this by defining harmless acts as misbehaviors, using excessive punishment for minor infractions, and constantly monitoring youth to the point at which they feel targeted. Furthermore, I argue that this implicit criminalization occurs despite YSA’s intentional efforts to understand and promote their students’ cultures and foster familial relationships between students and teachers. To close, I discuss the policy implications of this case study. I argue that policymakers should not focus all of their attention on reducing the use of exclusionary discipline in schools. While that is important, my research reveals that there are other types of school discipline that negatively impact our youth every day.

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