Unraveling the School Punitive Web: The School-to-Prison Pipeline in the Context of the Gendered Shadow Carceral State.

AuthorAlfaro, Andrea Roman

Education researchers and policymakers popularized the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor to understand the connection between school failure and youth incarceration in the United States. However, the metaphor has been criticized for simplifying schools'role in creating and enlarging the carceral state. Based on Latina girls'experiences attending a community day school in California, this study shows how alternative education programs facilitate the annexation of schools within the criminal justice system, enclosing Latina girls in a gendered web of punitive threads. Alternative education and its programs are best understood as shadow carceral innovations that expand the carceral state beyond prison walls.


IN THE EARLY 2000S, EDUCATION RESEARCHERS AND POLICYMAKERS popularized the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) metaphor to refer to the process by which children are pushed out of school and hastened "into the juvenile, and eventually, the criminal justice system, where prison [becomes] the end of the road" (NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund 2005, 11). Although useful in discussing the relationship between schools and the criminal justice system, several scholars have argued that the STPP simplifies the critical role schools have played in the marginalization of youth of color and the expansion of the US carceral state (Kupchik 2010; Selman et al. 2019; Sojoyner 2013, 2016). Schools do not just push students into the criminal justice system. They play an active role in creating, innovating, and expanding the web of punitive threads that disproportionately penalizes poor youth of color (Lopez-Aguado 2018, Meiners 2007, Rios 2011, Simmons 2016). Through the blending of educational and criminal authority, schools create "invisible pathways to carceral involvement" (Selman et al. 2019, 528).

Employing data from observations from 2009 to 2011 and interviews with staff and Latina girls at El Valle Juvenile Detention Center (El Valle) and Legacy Community Day School's Recuperation Program (Legacy RP), an alternative program for so-called at-risk, previously incarcerated youth funded by a local probation department in Southern California, this paper questions the STPP metaphor by analyzing how Latina girls experience the material connections between alternative education and the criminal justice system. We find that the implementation of compulsory alternative educational programs and the use of surveillance mechanisms and academic sanctions to control so-called problematic students are imbued with gendered expectations and prejudices, producing and reproducing a gendered shadow carceral state.

Latina girls are punished with more surveillance, detention, and time in Legacy RP for not conforming to gendered cultural standards of femininity and protecting themselves from gender violence and gendered and racist prejudices. These girls' experiences show that alternative schools are not only spaces of encounter, where students have their first contact with the criminal justice system. Alternative schools are also spaces where gendered carceral power is carried out and enhanced through institutional annexation, the blending of education and criminal legal authority, and the creation of alternative pathways to incarceration. Legacy acts as a covert innovation of the carceral state because it employs what seem to be alternatives to penal power.These alternatives deem "normal and necessary technologies of control that govern oppression" of racialized communities (Sojoyner 2013, 241).

Latina girls' experiences in the alternative education system show the workings of a gendered web of punitive threads that extends punishment beyond prison walls. These girls' stories illustrate how gendered and racialized expectations and prejudices are critical to understanding the expansion of carcerality and how and why punishment is imparted. The intricate connection between alternative education and the criminal justice system shows how the carceral state has become more "legally hybrid and institutionally variegated" (Beckett OCMurakawa 2012, 222), expanding punitiveness and reproducing gender, racial, and class inequalities.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

Since it was coined in 2003, the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) metaphor has been used to explain the connection between the education and criminal justice systems in the United States. The STPP refers to the process by which students are pushed out of the education system and, as a result, end up in prison because of educational failure. The transformation of schools into high-security environments has increased law enforcement presence in educational spaces (Bracy 2010). As a result, law enforcement agents, such as school resource officers (SROs), have become responsible for disciplining students, a task previously performed by school officials (Casella 2003, Hirschfield 2009, McGrew 2008, Simmons 2016, Wald & Losen 2003).

While most students have seen an increase in the use of carceral technologies at schools, low-income students of color have a higher probability of experiencing the carceral system through school discipline (Simmons 2016, 37). These students are punished for behavior considered disruptive or inappropriate by adults (Casella 2003, Hirschfield 2009, McGrew 2008, Wald & Losen 2003). They are punished with alternative education, detention, and incarceration for not fitting into the category of a normative student (Fenning & Rose 2007). Studies find that students are labeled dangerous or at-risk by school officials and law enforcement agents for a manifold of reasons, such as dress or style, background, despondent and defying attitude, sexuality, reputation, and lack of self-restraint (Casella 2003, McGrew 2008, E. Morris 2007, Rios 2011). Students who do not fit the expectations of so-called appropriate behavior based on adult perceptions of correct school etiquette are deemed dangerous, violent, and uncorrectable. Frequently, the consequences of this labeling are more severe than the behaviors that get students in trouble.

Despite the wealth of research done on the STPP, few studies have tried to understand girls' experiences (M. Morris 2012). Although scholars have shown that men and boys are most affected by the growth of the carceral state, newer research points to an alarming increase in the criminalization of poor girls of color in the education system (Chesney-Lind & Shelden 2004, Irwin & Umemoto 2016, M. Morris 2016). This research has found that disciplinary sanctions in school, as well as the need to survive, find shelter, and escape domestic violence, affect girls' educational achievement and cause entanglement with the criminal justice system (Chesney-Lind 2006, Chesney-Lind & Jones 2010a, Chesney-Lind & Pasko 2012).

Girls of color are often relegated to group homes, detention centers, and alternative schools for not conforming to traditional white middle-class femininity standards. Girls are punished for being loud, acting defiantly, engaging in fights, establishing reputations as "ghetto" or "fighters," or expressing their sexuality (Chesney-Lind & Shelden 2004; Flores 2016; Irwin & Umemoto 2012, 2016; M. Morris 2012). Many of these behaviors are strategies girls of color use to keep themselves safe in a context where interpersonal violence is prevalent and social status is continuously in danger (Chesney-Lind & Jones 2010b; Chesney-Lind & Pasko 2012; Irwin & Umemoto 2016; Jones 2010; Miller 2008; M. Morris 2012, 2016). These girls' efforts to protect themselves turn them into targets of gendered institutional sanctions (Irwin & Umemoto 2016).

Although the literature discussed above provides some clues on the experiences of girls of color at school, most of this scarce research has focused on Black girls (Miller 2008; E. Morris 2007; M. Morris 2012, 2016). Research has shown that Black and Latinx youth face criminalization and punitive social control in similar ways and are overrepresented in the criminal justice system compared to their White counterparts (Pesta 2018, Rios 2011). However, Latina girls are nearly absent in the youth and punishment literature (Flores 2016, Lopez & Pasko 2017). In a context in which the US government has criminalized Latinx identity, there is a need to study and discuss Latina girls' experiences in the education and criminal justice systems.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline and Alternative Schooling

Scholars have criticized the STPP for two main reasons. First, the metaphor does not explain the mechanisms that make the re-criminalization of students of color possible, making it theoretically simplistic. Second, the STPP misses the historical processes that have made schools a critical space for constructing racialized punitive power. Schools and prisons are not two ends of a pathway for students of color (Simmons 2016, 4). Schools are spaces where coercive, punitive practices and entanglement with the criminal justice system are created and reproduced in a "more low-profile, pedestrian way" (Beckett & Murakawa 2012, 224).

In particular, alternative schooling programs in the United States, such as continuation and community day schools, have become spaces where students deemed dangerous or at-risk are socialized into the workings of the carceral state (Flores 2016, Lopez-Aguado 2018, Rios 2017). Alternative schools' use of punitive behavioral management and close ties with law enforcement exposes students to coercive practices that resemble and are conducive to carceral punishment. The blending of school and law enforcement authority allows alternative schools to practice institutional innovations of the shadow carceral state (Selman et al. 2019). These innovations expand pathways to incarceration by creating civil alternatives to social control and blending educational and criminal legal authority (Beckett & Murakawa 2012, 224).

Like the schools studied by Lopez-Aguado (2018), Rios (2017), and...

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