By Laurel White
Racially discriminatory discipline was institutionalized during the American school desegregation era of the 1960s and 1970s, and sowed the seeds of the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” for Black students, according to a new article from UW–Madison School of Education faculty member Walter Stern.
The school-to-prison pipeline is a research-backed phenomenon in which students who experience “zero tolerance” or otherwise strict disciplinary policies in school are more likely to end up in jail or prison than peers in schools with more nuanced disciplinary policies. Scholars typically date the beginning of the pipeline’s existence to the 1990s, but Stern argues it began decades earlier.
In the article, published in the Journal of Southern History, Stern examines the case of Gary Tyler, a Black teenager who was imprisoned for nearly 42 years after being wrongfully convicted of fatally shooting a white student at their desegregating Louisiana high school in 1974.
Stern says exploring the Tyler case is a way to illuminate a largely neglected history of school violence and the criminal justice system.
“My article highlights the creation, contestation, and institutionalization of racially discriminatory discipline, which I present as a new form of educational inequality that developed during desegregation,” says Stern, an associate professor in the UW–Madison School of Education’s Department of Educational Policy Studies. “In doing so, I believe it provides a more complete history of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.”
Stern’s analysis shows how the violence at Tyler’s school extended decades of political conflict in the South over desegregation, equal educational opportunity, and governmental protection for Black children. He argues that while public officials largely tolerated white violence against Black students, Black students’ political activity within desegregating schools was recast as criminal behavior to justify punitive solutions and the targeting of Black students as the cause of student conflict.
“By punishing Black students for demanding protection and equal educational opportunity, public officials transformed a racial justice issue into a public safety one and laid the foundation for the punitive practices and racial disparities in school discipline that continue to plague public schools today,” he says.
The article also draws attention to Black students’ active role in political struggles over desegregation and clarifies the ironies and costs of desegregation for Black southerners. Stern is currently working on a book on Tyler’s case. He received a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Stipend award to support the project.
Stern also recently served as a guest editor of a 167-page special section in the Journal of Urban History. The special section focused on the historical relationship between public education and the carceral state, which Stern defines as “the array of governmental policies and practices that enable mass incarceration.”
Stern says the special section examines “the intertwined evolution of the state’s protective, preventative, and punitive power in urban America from the antebellum era through the 1980s.” It does so by dissecting historical moments including the confinement of truant youth in 19th century Brooklyn, the criminalization of student protest generally and Black students’ protest in particular in New York City, Charleston, and Boston during the 1960s and 1970s, and the development of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
“These essays provide scholars with a new model for understanding the historical relationship between schools, police, and prisons,” Stern says. “The section shows that the carceral state has both moved into and emerged from within schools themselves.”
The Journal of Southern History article, “School Violence and the Carceral State in the 1970s: Desegregation and the New Educational Inequality in Louisiana,” is available here.
The special section in the Journal of Urban History, “Public Education and the Carceral State,” is available here.