Lockdown High: how schools put the emphasis on crime, security and violence instead of freedom and education

The Guardian's John Harris reviews Annette Fuentes's Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse, an investigative book on how "zero tolerance" policies have produced high-schools that "reflect a society that has become fixated on crime, security and violence." Harris points out that the insanity isn't a mere American phenomenon, and has been enthusiastically embraced in the UK, where things are about to get much worse.
Now, as the surveillance state embeds itself in the lives of millions of children, the education bill currently making its way through parliament promises to extend teachers' powers to search pupils to the point that, as the pressure group Liberty puts it, they will be "proportionate to terrorism investigations". Teachers will be able not just to seize phones and computers, but wipe them of any data if they think there "is a good reason to do so" - a move of a piece with new powers to restrain pupils and issue summary expulsions.

Not entirely surprisingly, education secretary Michael Gove casts all this as a matter of copper-bottomed common sense. "Our bill will put heads and teachers back in control, giving them a range of tough new powers to deal with bullies and the most disruptive pupils," he said last year, before he used a very telling phrase: "Heads will be able to take a zero-tolerance approach."

For many people, the idea of school discipline will still be synonymous with Victorian images of cane-wielding teachers, but we now seem to be headed for something much more insidious: authoritarianism for children, sold to students and staff using the dazzle of technology, and the modern vocabulary of the security crackdown.

And all this, you may remember, from a government whose coalition agreement promises "a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government and roll back state intrusion".

Only for grownups, perhaps.

Every morning, I walk my daughter to day-care, a ten minute walk in which we pass about 50 CCTVs, ending with the two over the outer and inner doors to the day-care itself. However, once we get there, there is a sign warning us that we're not allowed to use our phones "as many phones are equipped with cameras" and that this is for the children's safety.

School surveillance: how big brother spies on pupils


  1. The thing that bothers me with these articles is that there’s always this underlying “oooh, the teacher, the evil evil teacher” mantra simmering through.

    Yes, teachers are sometimes collosal bumholes, and abuse of power is pretty much something that happens in every school. But not every day, and not with every teacher.

    Maybe I’m just over-sensitive to this because I am a teacher, but really, I don’t give a damn about zero tolerance and the government can have the power they invested in me back, for all I care.

    Speaking of care: For all I care, students can marry their cellphones as long as they turn them off during class. Thanks to the archaic dust-gathering institutions I teach in, computers are not currently a worry, but I’ll update you once I see some (we’ll probably get full-on laptop support shortly after mankind builds its first colony on Proxima Centauri).

    And what’s more, the constant surveillance cuts both ways. I damn well feel watched by all the CCTVs, and I am sort of sick about being treated like a pedophile in hiding by the public and my own employers just because I am *gasp* teaching kids.

    Case in point: On a whim, I flipped off one of the cameras in the teacher’s lounge, and was nearly fired for not “showing proper respect to security measures”. Yeah, right. Should’ve gone into biological weapon’s research, the security is less thight there…

    1. Have you actually spent time in a public school? The kids themselves are the source of the violence in the schools, which engenders further security theater.

      1. If you treat someone like a criminal, you better not be surprised when they start acting like one.

  2. I remember high-school being an very turbulent and violent experience. A friend of mine was beaten into a coma and his life has been challenging ever since. I had my head kicked in and my car vandalized several times. There wasn’t a day that went by without being ostracized or threatened by any number of people. The worst of it was that no one, not even the police, could do anything about it. There were just too many kids involved.

    While I am not a fan of blatant authoritarian systems such as this — I think teachers and staff have been on a leash about dealing with these issues. The bullies get away with it because they know they can. They laughed about it in my school days.

    I’ve been out of school for a long time now, but I have to wonder if things have changed for better or worse since then. What is the impetus for such extreme measures? Has the nature of bullying changed so drastically as to become a threat large enough to necessitate them? Or is it legal, as in the teachers lack the tools to deal with bad behavior?

    Either way it’s a shame. I’m not really sure I like it, but one does wonder where it comes from and why.

  3. So if kids password protect their laptops does that mean they can be suspended until they cough up the key?

  4. England only. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own education systems.

  5. When your news is infotainment fear brings the best advertising revenue. The idiots have voted for spooky stories in their daily tele-hypnosis then vote at ballot as they have demanded to be commanded. So sad that the legal system famous for the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence is now popularly used to actively erode civil rights in favor of convenience and controlling fairy tale bad guys.
    School is where they will learn, to be slaves…

  6. Good post, Cory. My obs:

    1. Good-for-nothing parents who are not interested in education for themselves, and will sue at the drop of a chapeau if junior or missy is looked at cross-eyed by the teach. Include poor dietary habits, too.

    2. Intransigent educational leaders who are not implementing tech to its full advantage. All these kids should have small, connected tablets on which they can read their texts and lessons.

    3. Reluctance of the news media to highlight academic excellence (kids too ethnic?); predisposition to show teachers trying to enforce regulations but are attacked because it’s Junior’s right to wear T’s with any kind of inflammatory message.

    4. Neglect of main stream media to produce shows that have any kind of educational value, but instead do reality shows where they force average folks into some display of psychological decompensation.

    5. Vampires and zombies but no spirituality or morality.

    1. I agree. I know at least in the US, and probably elsewhere, it’s not a simple problem that can be fixed by just changing school district policy.

      It begins with parents who don’t care (or care but unfortunately must be absent to bring financial support) and the crap media that melts American minds. Ignorance is glorified. While grade schoolers have always had a “fuck the system” attitude, at least in the past rebellious students educated themselves by getting vocational skills.

      Now, the mainstream media shows that any dumbass that wants to exploit themselves can be successful, or at least famous, so why try to do anything but entertain or get your mugshot on the news? Parents aren’t there to encourage productive and studious behavior, or they have also bought into the crap media (balloon boy?).

      It’s disgusting, especially because this is all a side effect of free speech and family privacy. How do we turn around without infringing liberties? Based on the UK’s school problem, cutting back on free speech and privacy doesn’t seem to work.

  7. This is part of the current attempt by the plutocracy to destroy public education. This tactic is to make public school such an unpleasant place that parents will leave their kids uneducated (called home schooling) rather than send them to public school.

    1. …that parents will leave their kids uneducated (called home schooling)…

      Sandra Day O’Conner, Thomas Edison and a bunch of other home schooled people not withstanding

      1. ..that parents will leave their kids uneducated (called home schooling)…

        Sandra Day O’Conner, Thomas Edison and a bunch of other home schooled people not withstanding.

        And for every kid who is adequately homeschooled, usually by a parent who was traditionally educated, there are a hundred kids learning nothing, but at home.

        I am frightened by the idea that if I had been homeschooled I would have learned no more than my mother knew and had the patience to teach me. Or worse, if my mother had been homeschool she would have learned no more than HER mother knew.

  8. Interesting. Just got finished reading below about @Lulzsec; you know, the techno-bullies who are making everyone realize there isn’t enough security in the world.

    1. Oh dear, that’s spurious.

      I think you meant

      “LulzSec; you know, the techno best-practice supporters who are identifying slapdash high-profile operators who won’t think twice about failing to secure customers’ data to a minimum legal requirement but will instead threaten to sue to stop them pointing out their mistakes.”

      Good grief.

  9. Lets look at the term “zero-tolerance”. Isn’t that like “no-tolerance”? Like “intolerance”? sooo…”Heads will be able to take an intolerance approach.”
    Interesting concept.
    And i thought intolerance was a bad thing…

  10. I wonder if people will think this is all for the public good when The Thought Police are out and about and we are saluting Big Brother.

  11. Teachers wiping phones and computers? It’s an elaborate plot to sell backup software!

    (Actually, I don’t think software companies have enough lobbyists to make it work this way)

  12. USA public schools — at least inner city ones — are often in effect “service academies” to prepare pupils for their future in prison.

  13. man, i’m glad i grew up free range. sometimes i think….this post-modern
    madness…is irreversible. overpopulation, dwindling resources, poor education, wealth concentration. i don’t love being middle aged but i’m glad i came of age in the 70s.

    1. I hate to risk falling into the “in my days” trap but I do feel that I was lucky to grow up in the 70s-80s too before the US and UK drifted towards becoming security states. I even used to ride my bike around without endless molester paranoia.

  14. This is one of the reasons I’m terrified to have children. I don’t want to raise them in this society. Kids aren’t encouraged to use their brains, they are encouraged to follow the rules and don’t ask questions. I am glad I graduated highschool on the cusp of this freedom/lockdown change. My senior year, there was only one entrance into the school that was not locked and guarded by cops. Exits were one way and would alarm if you propped them open. Prior to my senior year, you could come and go (mostly) as you please. The hall monitors and cops got to know who was allowed in and out. Those who went to work, tech school, left early because they had early classes, people taking college courses. Everyone else was questioned and held.

  15. These comments are the opposite of my experience in High School 25 years ago. Students left the school and walked or drove to the local mall for lunch. Bullying never got more physical than pushing. Students were able to “stand up” to teachers and administrators if they felt strongly about something. The building and grounds were open for use after school and on weekends, without any problems.

    Now I home school my kids and every time I hear about some zero-common-sense policy I am glad it isn’t infecting my kids with a tolerance for authoritarianism.

    My son tried public school in third grade for a month and came back to homeschooling in disgust because “they had us counting cheerios and I asked the teacher when we would get to division and she said not this year.”
    We had a laugh yesterday because the school had decided that because students weren’t learning enough under the current policies they would extend the school year another 3 weeks into the summer and add more homework. My son said, “How will 3 more weeks of counting cheerios teach them division?”

    1. Wow. That is eye-opening. Plus I’m pretty sure they are directly connected. If MI had better education, they’d have less crime, less need for prison. “Nip it in the bud” as it were. I’m on board. Let’s swap the budgets for schools and prisons.

      1. Easy to find studies demonstrating a strong link between lack of education and crime. Google Scholar brings up hundreds.

        I’m not quite certain what political dynamic ensures the continued flow of money to build and run prisons while school budgets are in steady decline, but I’d look back to the early years of the right-wing Christian Coalition movement and the words of Jerry Falwell, “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!”

  16. …and it starts with the architecture:

    From James Howard Kunstler’s TED Talk “The tragedy of suburbia”:

    This link goes to his comment on school architecture, but the whole video is well worth watching.

  17. I honestly don’t care if there’s some grainy pictures of me on a screen somewhere.
    Unless the CCTV system is Scopion Stare enabled of course.

  18. Unless the camera are equipped with Scorpion Stare I’m honestly not that bothered about grainy images appearing on a screen somewhere.

  19. Ah, zero tolerance policies. Their purpose is nothing more or less than trying to remove discretion from the picture. At least, it started that way. The actual punishment powers involved: suspension, expulsion, etc.- are not usually that different than previously. Monitoring activities are, of course, dramatically increased in patently ridiculous and inexcusable ways.

    But by way of explanation (not excuse), why did schools choose this route? I doubt anyone who has ever taught could possibly agree with the statement, “Everyone who has ever done anything even slightly wrong, regardless of circumstances, should be punished in exactly the same way, without recourse or an appeal.”

    1. Parents started siding with children rather than administrators. “My little darling would NEVER do that. Where’s your proof?” Or, “That other child did something WRONG to mine. You’d BETTER punish him.”
    2. Obsession with “safety” without regard for the actual statistics, likelihoods, or cost-benefit analysis of various risks and countermeasures, especially for children.
    3. Society-wide failure to defend traditional boundaries and privacy rights, allowing schools to intrude on the lives of children at home and elsewhere.

    1. But by way of explanation (not excuse), why did schools choose this route?

      It’s not because teachers think it helps students learn, though having an environment that is and feels safe, does. It’s to protect the district and its employees in the case of lawsuit. If a teacher calms down a shoving match before it turns into a full fight, and the origin of the problem is investigated and dealt with, that’s probably best for everyone involved. But then when a month later there’s a serious fight and some snowflake gets seriously hurt, that previous incident becomes evidence for the plaintiff that the school didn’t do all it could to stop and prevent violence on its campus. If the school has a written policy that requires suspension or expulsion of those two kids who got into a shoving match, and they do so, the incident then becomes evidence for the defense.

  20. “Every morning, I walk my daughter to day-care, a ten minute walk in which we pass about 50 CCTVs, ending with the two over the outer and inner doors to the day-care itself. However, once we get there, there is a sign warning us that we’re not allowed to use our phones “as many phones are equipped with cameras” and that this is for the children’s safety.”


    Yes, school is spelled wrong.

  21. Honestly, thanks for depicting me as not only a child abuser (cane wielding? are you a frakkin kidding me?) but also as a mindless security thug.

    If a kid is texting during my class, you bet I’ll take their phone and give them back a bettery. They can get it at the end of the day. Will I read it? No. Will I erase it? No. But do I expect that while they are in my class they pay attention and show some courtesy? Yes, because many times their parents have failed to teach them those niceties. But can they use it to look up into, do a calculation, snap a pic of their lab because they are proud of it? Yes, definitely. Its called exercising discretion – and apparently neither the government nor the authors, nor Corey feel we can handle that.

    This is yet one more case of those who have minimal experience in schools (on both sides of the argument) opining away. Please, spend 180+ days in a school. You may even excel at it and I welcome that. But give it a year before spouting off about too much security, too little security, the children’s freedom, my own freedom etc etc etc.

    By the way, do the authors of this know that teachers in the US don’t have the full protection of the 1st Amendment? How about some fire and brimstone for that?

    1. By the way, do the authors of this know that teachers in the US don’t have the full protection of the 1st Amendment? How about some fire and brimstone for that?

      You don’t actually read Boing Boing, do you?

  22. While Cory is not by any means a teacher basher, it would be nice every now and then if he recognised that the whole lockdown culture is not a one sided affair, but more a positive feedback loop which operates between parents and the community who want their spawn to be educated in a homogenous, sterile, “safe” environment, and education authorities who are too spineless to stand up to them and draw the line somewhere. Teachers are just as much caught in the middle of this whole mess as the students – I’d prefer not to have to confiscate phones and other devices off kids – I’d like to use them in my classes so that they can see their true potential. We just have to follow the directives placed on us by our employers and the expectations of the parents. We could rise up and reject it, but that would probably be classified as industrial action and when was the last time parents came out in support of a teachers’ strike in any numbers? Nope – too darn inconvenient that they have to look after their own children for a day.

  23. Why is school so different to normal adult life? I can only imagine it’s because:
    a) You’re forced to go.
    b) They’re to a certain degree forced to keep you.

    Lets try getting rid of both requirements and changing it to these:
    a) Nobody is forced to go and schools can “fire” students the same way companies do with employees.
    b) Parents are fined for each child they raise that doesn’t meet basic educational requirements before 21.

    A lot of people have a gut reaction that this is some crazy right wing idea but honestly it has nothing to do with right and left. Education has become so toxic and no longer resembles the “real” world in any way. We’ve got to find a new system that ends the 18 year prison sentence we’ve currently got in place.

  24. I remember many of these policies put in place in my public school years. The sad thing is when i was a child, i’d always tell myself “just put up with it for now, when i’m a grown-up it won’t even be a part of my life.” T-minus 2 years to the time i’d get to launch into adulthood, the patriot act was signed. Lucky for them i did not become a teacher, i’d be teaching the kids to be able to figure out what is happening and how fight against it.

  25. I was in high school from 1971 – 1975, and it was paradise compared to what schools are like now. My high school’s website has a pdf of a 200+ page student policy manual. In the 70s it was pretty much don’t screw in the hallways or set the building on fire. I feel sorry for students and teachers today.

  26. One big problem with trying to take care of “disruptive pupils” is the fact that this definition includes the targets of bullies.

    I was bullied endlessly in K-12, and frequently got in trouble with the administration because in being a target of multiple bullies, I was considered the problem. I was a disruptive pupil simply for the fact of being bullied.

    As for commenter #1… no.. the teachers aren’t the evil ones. It’s the administrators.

  27. i didnt even read the post, but didnt foucault already talked a LOT about this, in the 70s?

  28. Let’s set the record straight on school resource officers. The SRO serves three functions in the school setting: 1) law enforcement officer, 2) teacher and 3)counselor. They are primarily in schools for the protection of students and staff. They present a “resource: to troubled youth who may relate better to a person who knows what the streets are like rather than a school staff member. They are a link between the school and other agencies within the juvenile justice system and yes, they are the key defender of children when someone with a gun, student or adult, has decided to kill as many people as he can. Most parents feel a sense of security knowing there is a trained police officer working in their son or daughter’s school everyday. It is the most unique position in law enforcement and requires the most dedicated officer totally committed to students. YES; the SRO must be a highly trained tactical officer in the event shots ring out within the school. Seconds count in saving lives and his or her effectiveness is the students only hope of survival. To characterize the SRO in any other way is a showing of ignorance to the role and function of the school resource officer.

    Richard J. Caster, Ed.D
    Former Executive Director
    National Association of School Resource Officers

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