Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Rites of May

As my 10 year old daughter prepares in a week or so take part in an away from home school sponsored camping and learning experience I read with some alarm a story carried widely by the media (here’s the BBC version) about teachers from Scales Elementary school in Tennessee who had “staged a mock gun attack” on their sixth graders during a school camping trip. On the last night of a camping trip, the staff told the students a gun wielding assailant was in the area. Students recall teachers specifically using the term “code red,” which students had been previously trained meant that a gun wielder was in the school. In the face of parental outrage, school officials are describing the fake gun scenario as a “learning experience” that the staff had planned and that students had been told in that a prank would occur for teaching purposes during the trip. As the media storm builds, however, two staff members, an assistant principal and a teacher have been placed on unpaid leave for the duration of the school year.

Coming only a few weeks after the massacre at Virginia Tech it is difficult to believe that the staff members were not more wary that their particular prank might be misread (although perhaps they thought it even more relevant as a teaching issue). But the predictable focus on individual misconduct should not divert us from noting something subtler but pervasive, how central the imagined threat of violent crime has become to the American school experience. As Bill Lyons and Julie Drew argue in their terrific book, Punishing Schools, both inner city and suburban schools now bristle with routines designed to prevent crime in school and how much the remote possibility of violent crime justifies a system targeted at lesser misconduct. In the name of protecting children, we now invest their emerging subjectivity with a code system designed to highlight the salience of violent crime (how many other code colors besides “red” are there one wonders). The teachers in Tennessee seemed blind to the alarming quality of their prank precisely because the mandate to govern schools through crime is itself so deeply ingrained. That the teachers now find themselves facing administrative sanctions and perhaps worst, only underscores how complex this terrain is for responsible actors in all kinds of institutions where the fear of crime has become a constitutive feature. The massacre at Virginia Tech will only raise the salience of any real or imagined threats of violent crime in proximity to schools and colleges.


Michael Zhou said...

This is not surprising, since so many schools, especially those in inner-city ghettos, spend much more on security equipment like surveillance cameras, metal-detectors and pay for extra security rather than spend that money on substantive things like books, renovations, etc.

Personally, my old high-school fell under this mentality: the school was locked-out completely during school hours. No one can come and go without close supervision, and there are cameras everywhere.

Given this hyper-paranoia of crime and violence in public schools, it's no wonder that people grow up to become supporters of the populist "law-and-order" rhetoric and end up supporting extremely harsh criminal laws.

Dr. Victor M. Rios said...

Professor Simon,

thanks for setting up this blog. I especially like this post. I mean Governing through crime goes hand in hand with the moral fabric of society. it like Durkheim said:“But so that the originality of the idealist who dreams of transcending his era may display itself, that of the criminal, which falls short of the age, must also be possible. One does not go without the other (Durkheim 1983: 74).

seems like governing through crime perpetually reminds the good citizen that she is doing a good job. So does this mean that the more security, fear, surveillance and "code reds" we get the more solidarity we will feel? does the very core of our citizen idenitity require that we be given code reds in order to feel normal--the more code reds we are given, the better citizens we become...hmm...

Jonathan Simon said...

No doubt every society needs its Durkheimian boogey-men (or women, e.g., witchcraft). But I remember getting initiated by older cousins and camp counselors. The fact that the presence of the monstrous among us today is relayed by school curricula and smart highway signs wired to Amber alerts that makes the era of governing through crime so peculiar.