Schools as Prisons

Public schools are, by design, bureaucratic organizations operating under clearly defined rules and regulations. They have a structure which places students into administratively designated groups for a variety of educational and social purposes. They mandate attendance by their clients with just a few exceptions. Public schools determine the content of their programs. They authorize the methods and materials to be used by the staff. They provide, at their own discretion, the physical settings for instruction and recreation. Public schools rarely allow the recipients of their services (students) the opportunity to lead the organization. Public schools assume the rights of the parents of their students in most regards. As a result of the foregoing, public schools and prisons can be seen to have several common characteristics. However, these commonalities do not describe or define the overwhelming number of public schools. I would argue that most public schools provide a supportive and positive environment, where reasonable and appropriate behavior is the social norm adopted by the students themselves and young people are not overtly made to feel powerless.

Children suffer in school when they are denied an adequate level of social, emotional or physical safety and security. They also suffer when a school fails to provide them with an educational program that is appropriate to their skills, abilities, talents and needs. Again, I would suggest to the reader that most public schools provide programs and personnel that support the varied needs of their students. Most public schools are not socially, emotionally or physically dangerous places for children or adults. They do not routinely fail to meet the instructional needs of their pupils. The term “suffering” can be defined narrowly or broadly. Placing the term in a reasonable perspective, I would be hard pressed to think of more than a few such examples I have either witnessed or heard about in my thirty-eight years as an educator.

The fact that we can identify those few schools or school districts that are failing to meet their responsibilities to the children they enroll is testimony to the fact that the overwhelming majority of public schools are doing so. Anyone who wants the public schools in their community to be more responsive to the needs of students has an opportunity to contribute to their improvement through their participation in school board meetings and elections, annual budget votes, school level organizations and individual contact with school personnel. In conclusion, I believe that our public schools are not like prisons and children are not suffering in them.