Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ageism and the Discourses of School Safety

   The aftermath of the mass shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 could provide enough material to teach an entire course on how ageist anti-youth discourses and practices operate in American society. As someone who writes and thinks about these topics a great deal, I think that I can say that I have never before seen so many pertinent examples of how anti-youth ageism operates playing out on the national stage in such a short span of time. The purpose of this blog post is not to make an argument about gun control but to walk the reader through the ways in which ageism against youth has operated at every turn in the way that politicians, pundits, and many citizens have responded to both the tragedy of the mass shooting and the wave of youth initiated gun control activism that has begun to occur in its wake.

   To start with, one must first understand the rise in school shootings in the context of the increasingly punitive and carceral culture of America's K-12 schools. For instance, Mark Ames argues in his book Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond that school shootings can best be understood as "modern day slave rebellions." While this thesis may seem to ignore some inconvenient truths about mass shootings (i.e. the fact that they increasingly take place in malls, movie theaters, universities, etc., the obvious psychological problems and lack of empathy of so many of the mass shooters, the fact that the shooters often inflict violence indiscriminately instead of just inflicting it on oppressive authority figures), it is worth engaging with Ames's ideas in order to better appreciate how this culture of excessive focus on discipline and ageist oppression in American K-12 schools may be received by already troubled individuals, thus precipitating the sorts of tragedies we observe all too frequently when a gunman shoots up a school. Unlike Ames, I do not see mass shooters as perfectly analogous to slaves rising up against their owners. These individuals are no heroes and are rightly regarded as pariahs. However, I do think that the often authoritarian and punitive culture of American K-12 education (as documented powerfully by director Cevin Soling in his documentary film The War on Kids) may play a role in at least some school shootings.

   As Soling's excellent film documents, zero tolerance policies (instituted in part in response to concerns about gun violence in the 1990s) in schools that were initially instituted to crack down on hard drugs and dangerous weapons soon morphed into an excuse for the most authoritarian of school personnel to begin treating students like prisoners. Lenore Skenazy of Reason Magazine documents some of the most egregious examples of how these policies operate. A student is suspended for bringing a knife to school in order to cut an apple. A seventy-nine-year-old substitute teacher is fired for having students as friends on Facebook. A student receives detention for sharing their lunch. Our schools increasingly operate more and more like warehouses for inmates than like communities in which learning takes place. It is not difficult to see how the increasingly draconian logic of American K-12 educational institutions could operate so as to further distress already troubled young people, in some cases with tragic results.

   For many years now, activists concerned with the welfare of students of color and students with disabilities have attempted to draw our attention to the so-called "school to prison pipeline" and the ways in which it all too often sets youth up for a life of control under the thumb of the carceral state. What has perhaps been less remarked upon but is equally important is the ways in which spending so much of their lives in an increasingly regimented and oppressive institution wreaks havoc on the psyches of students, some of whom ultimately lash out in violent ways with devastating results.

   Moving on from the school shootings themselves, we also see ageism at work in the ways in which the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were received by many adults as soon as they began to speak out. These were bright, articulate young people who had just survived a traumatic attack that had injured some of them and left others of them without friends and mentors that had previously been a vital presence in their lives. They said the same things that so many survivors of and individuals impacted by mass shootings have said such as the parents of the elementary school students murdered in Newtown, Connecticut, the survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, and survivors of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater mass shooting.

   Nonetheless, because these specific traumatized yet resilient survivor-activists were teenagers many commentators felt that it was necessary to put them in their place as recalcitrant children in need of discipline, giving all of us a parade of examples of adult authoritarianism at its worst. Dinesh D'Souza (who at one time arguably occupied the role of conservative intellectual but is now best understood as an increasingly unhinged right wing troll) glibly tweeted out that students upset by the news that the Florida House of Representatives would not open a debate on legislation banning assault weapons had received "the worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs." Former Georgia Republican Representative Jack Kingston seemed to see these grieving activists as pawns of some larger force, stating, "Do we really think seventeen-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?" Disgraced former Fox News television personality Bill O'Reilly also weighed in, asking "Should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?"

   When you are an adult who has survived a traumatic event or lost a child in a national tragedy, your proximity to atrocity renders you more credible in the eyes of others when you speak out about the issues surrounding your loss or your trauma. Even those who ultimately disagree with the positions that you may take on political issues in response to these events respect your grief, your outrage, your terror, your courage, your witness, and simply your right to an opinion as someone close to that about which you speak. When you are a teenager, your voice can be easily silenced and your views can be cheaply discounted because you are ostensibly too emotional, too immature, too suggestible to have anything to say worth listening to.

   It would be awful enough if the ageism on display in the midst of this national tragedy simply involved a few third rate right wing pundits making ill conceived comments but alas ageism is even baked into the more arguably well-meaning attempts to respond to this tragedy and the wider epidemic of gun violence plaguing our nation. In a rush to appear as if he was doing something while still avoiding giving offense to those proponents of gun rights that make up part of his base within the Republican Party, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed a plan endeavoring, among other things, to put a police office in every Florida K-12 public school and to allocate one officer per every one thousand students by the 2018 school year, to increase funding for the installation of metal detectors, bulletproof glass, and steel doors in schools, and to pass a law requiring all purchasers of firearms in Florida to be over the age of twenty-one years. President Donald Trump tweeted out his support for the prospect of arming teachers. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio also spoke of his support for new age restrictions on the purchase of firearms.

   As is so often the case in American life whether the issue is guns, abortion, tobacco, alcohol, pornography, marijuana, violent media, or any other hot button topic, compromises are made on the backs of young people, already a disempowered group of individuals with little power over the formal political processes that govern all of our lives and in many important respects almost as little power over their own individual lives. Age restrictions are put forward as solutions not because they prevent bad things from happening but because politicians are unable or unwilling to restrict the rights of those who are not currently already marginalized due to their age.

   In the context of a widespread and ongoing national discussion of the ways in which K-12 educators are all too often quick to see students of color and students with disabilities as disciplinary problems compared to white, non-disabled students and of the ways in which police officers are all too often responsible for unjustly killing and injuring citizens, it seems foolhardy at best and malicious at worst to put forward the idea of armed teachers and more law enforcement officials in schools as a solution to our nation's problems with gun violence. As Vann R. Newkirk II notes in The Atlantic, the Second Amendment enshrines the individual right to bear arms in the United States Constitution out of a concern with personal liberty which "hardening" schools with armed personnel only serves to undermine. This "security theater" may ultimately do little to prevent gun violence in schools (which was certainly the case in the Parkland shooting itself as the school's armed police officer refused to enter the school and engage with the gunman when the shooting began), but it does have consequences for students. In the words of journalist and expert on criminal justice and civil liberties Radley Balko, "There's little data to suggest putting cops in schools has made the students at these schools safer. The students are, however, more likely to be Tased, beaten, body-slammed, and arrested for misbehavior that previously resulted in detention or suspension." A cycle that any youth liberationist and many youth are all too familiar with plays out once again... authoritarian efforts to "protect" children and adolescents ultimately further endanger them, often in ways beyond the imaginings of those who initially put in place those measures designed to "protect" them. 

   This brings us to perhaps the grossest display of adult authoritarianism on display in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings which is how many teachers and administrators have responded to student activists in the wake of the tragedy. Student activists are being penalized for making their voices heard and disciplined for showing a sense of civic duty and concern for national affairs. Tessa Haraldsen and Mariah Skolinsky of Sebastian River Middle School in Indian River County, Florida were penalized for participating in the nationwide walkout and suspended from school, removed from all extracurricular activities, and not allowed to attend an upcoming school dance. Haraldsen in particular expressed confusion over why a teacher who praised civil rights activists in the classroom was quick to discipline her for her own gestures of protest on issues of national importance. Needville, Texas's Independent School District Superintendent Curtis Rhodes sent out a letter to parents of students stating that any student participating in walkouts would be suspended. As always, for many teachers, administrators, and staff members of our nation's K-12 schools, the focus is less on educating students to be engaged and civic minded participants in the world around them than on disciplining, controling, and asserting authority over them.

   My mother brought my attention to a meme making its way around Facebook lately. Writes Marcey Raymond Kusper, "In class today, the topic of school protests to honor the seventeen victims of the Florida shooting came up. One of my students said 'I think it's stupid. How about you make friends with seventeen kids you normally wouldn't instead of walking out of school.' What great conversation came out of it. Smile at seventeen people you normally wouldn't smile at, say a kind word to seventeen people who might not have someone to speak to, open up your heart to seventeen people who might be hurting, offer friendship to seventeen people who might have had none. Now that could change the climate of the school. Seventeen reasons for change... Seventeen reasons to make a difference. What's your seventeen? I like that slogan. Today warmed my heart to be a teacher. #WhatsYour17." While school climate is an important issue and the aims of the walk out do not represent the politics of all students, this meme brings to light the ways in which authoritarian mentalities among teachers, administrators, and staff function within the K-12 school context.

   In the context of this meme, it is obvious that the teacher is uncomfortable with students making political demands and voicing opinions on political issues and so she takes comfort in hearing a student stating that the walkout is "stupid." Walking out of the classroom, making political statements, engaging in political acts is deemed a challenge to her authority so she would rather students "smile" at one another and "open their hearts." What makes this even more laughable still is that this call for kindness comes amidst the backdrop of calls to "harden" schools, arm teachers, crack down on ostensibly inappropriate interactions between teachers and students, and make schools more like prisons.

   We need a youth liberation movement that challenges all of the ageist logic that has been on display over the course of the past few weeks as the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School grapple with their personal and collective tragedies and as young people across the nation are beginning to find their political voice. In the wake of this tragedy, it has been heartening to see so many youth exhibiting a newfound boldness in challenging authority figures that I for one lacked at their age. It has also been heartening to see many adults, including former President Barack Obama, voicing their support for these youths' right to take a stand and make their voices heard. However, I hope that these same adults are there to support the right of youth to speak out not just when they're speaking out for a cause that these adults have long supported, but when they are taking a stand for their rights more generally - their right to vote, to make their own medical decisions, to make their own decisions about where they live and who they live with, to make their own decisions about all aspects of their lives, their bodies, and their futures. Ultimately I want to see more adults recognizing the rights of young people to take ownership of both their own lives and to participate in the national and international conversations surrounding political issues that effect us all.

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