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Police in the Hallways

Discipline in an Urban High School

Kathleen Nolan

Publication Year: 2011

As zero-tolerance discipline policies have been instituted at high schools across the country, police officers are employed with increasing frequency to enforce behavior codes and maintain order, primarily at poorly performing, racially segregated urban schools. Actions that may once have sent students to the detention hall or resulted in their suspension may now introduce them to the criminal justice system. In Police in the Hallways, Kathleen Nolan explores the impact of policing and punitive disciplinary policies on the students and their educational experience.

Through in-depth interviews with and observations of students, teachers, administrators, and police officers, Nolan offers a rich and nuanced account of daily life at a Bronx high school where police patrol the hallways and security and discipline fall under the jurisdiction of the NYPD. She documents how, as law enforcement officials initiate confrontations with students, small infractions often escalate into “police matters” that can lead to summonses to criminal court, arrest, and confinement in juvenile detention centers.

Nolan follows students from the classroom and the cafeteria to the detention hall, the dean’s office, and the criminal court system, clarifying the increasingly intimate relations between the school and the criminal justice system. Placing this trend within the context of recent social and economic changes, as well as developments within criminal justice and urban school reform, she shows how this police presence has created a culture of control in which penal management overshadows educational innovation.

Police in the Hallways also examines the prevalent forms of oppositional behavior through which students express their frustrations and their deep sense of exclusion. With compassion and clear-eyed analysis, Nolan sounds a warning about this alarming convergence of prison and school cultures and the negative impact that it has on the real lives of low-income students of color—and, in turn, on us all.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-xii

In Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, Kathleen Nolan updates our understanding of urban schools in light of a changing political economy and the turn toward penal institutional practices in American schools as exemplified, for instance, in zero-tolerance approaches to student behavior. Nolan’s fine-grained ethnography operates at the frontiers of larger questions about how social structure relates to ...

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INTRODUCTION: Studying Urban School Discipline: A Bronx Tale

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pp. 1-18

One afternoon, I was checking my mailbox in the main office of the high school where I worked in the South Bronx. Suddenly, the quiet that settled upon the school late in the day was shattered as three police officers pushed a small black boy through the office door about ten feet from where I stood. A stocky white male officer pinned the boy, who appeared to be no older than thirteen, against the wall. The officer ...

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1 How the Police Took Over School Discipline: From Policies of Inclusion to Punishment and Exclusion

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pp. 19-38

In 2007, in Avon Park, Florida, six-year-old Desre’e Watson, who was black, had a tantrum in her kindergarten classroom. As children generally do during a tantrum, she cried, kicked, screamed, and became even more upset when the adults present tried to physically constrain her. School officials opted to call the police. When Desre’e saw the police, she cowered under a table in fright, but the officers quickly managed to grab ...

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2 Signs of the Times: Place, Culture, and Control at Urban Public High School

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pp. 39-52

Urban public high school is a large public high school that has served the surrounding communities for nearly one hundred years. It is located on a rather typical thoroughfare—part commercial, part resi-dential. Along the street, there are several take-out restaurants selling Chi-nese and Jamaican food, a few bodegas that cater to the vast numbers of local English- and Spanish-speaking Caribbean immigrants, a Subway ...

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3 Instituting the Culture of Control: Disciplinary Practices and Order Maintenance

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pp. 53-72

Although a variety of policies and practices were part of the culture of control inside UPHS, the most central was the systematic use of order-maintenance-style policing. This included law-enforcement officials’ patrolling of the hallways, the use of criminal-procedural-level strategies,1 and the pervasive threats of summonses and arrest, which together led to three essential consequences. First, the heavy polic-...

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4 Against the Law: Student Noncompliance and Contestation

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pp. 73-94

Routinely, students at UPHS.a were summoned to criminal court or got arrested as an outcome of a series of interactions beginning with the breaking of a school rule. At times, the pivotal moment occurred when an officer grabbed a student’s arm or pulled a hat off a student’s head. At other times, the inciting moment happened when a student was approached by a law-enforcement official and asked for identification. This ...

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5 Tensions between Educational Approaches and Discourses of Control

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pp. 95-116

Deans and administrators at UPHS asserted their own disciplinary strategies and even, at times, intentionally subverted the use of criminal justice or school discipline. They often strove for what could be called a culturally relevant disciplinary approach. The strategies I observed, such as counseling, parental contact, mediation, and problem solving (addressing the academic or organizational issue that might be causing ...

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6 The Underlife: Oppositional Behavior at Urban Public High School

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pp. 117-144

Kids gotta act tough and stupid when they get here, ’cause, you know, they hear about the reputation [of UPHS]. So it’s like they want to make sure they’re not picked on,” Kericia, a small black girl with bright eyes and hair neatly pulled back in a tiny ponytail, told me one day “Is that what it was like for you when you first came here?” Kericia, now a sophomore doing well in her classes, giggled and looked ...

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7 Living Proof: Experiences of Economic and Educational Exclusion

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pp. 145-162

What do you want to do when you finish high school?” I asked Stephanie, sixteen, one day as we sat together at a corner table in the lunchroom. Silence. Her face tightened, and after a long pause she frowned and shrugged her shoulders. I had gotten the same response to this question many times before, and it was painful for me to see. Stephanie was one of those students who had stopped dreaming, or at least dar-...

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CONCLUSION: Recommendations for Effective Urban Schooling and Sound Discipline

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pp. 163-184

Perhaps the most important insight that emerged from this study is that within the framework of zero tolerance and order main-tenance, students end up getting summoned to criminal court for inci-dents that began with the breaking of a minor school rule, not the law. Cutting class, wearing a hat, or being disruptive did not directly lead students into the criminal-justice system; instead, the behavior that resulted ...

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pp. 185-186

This project began as my doctoral dissertation in the Urban Educa-tion Program at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Many mentors and friends there provided tremendous support from the very early stages of the project. Among these individuals, I am most grateful to my dissertation chair, Jean Anyon, who has remained an invaluable mentor over the years. Our countless conversations greatly enriched this ...


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pp. 187-194

Works Cited

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pp. 195-202


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pp. 203-209

E-ISBN-13: 9780816678648
E-ISBN-10: 0816678642
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816675531

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2011