What’s the difference between school and prison?

Kevin Siers of the Charlotte Observer, in the Star-Courier, Highlands-Crosby, Texas, March 11, 2004

Give up?

Yeah, often the students give up, too. If you don’t know the answer, your school may resemble a prison.

Gary Stager’s post with jarring comparisons is here, at District Administration’s Pulse! blog. [District Administration purges its archives about every three years, it turns out; here is a copy of Mr. Stager’s column courtesy the Wayback Machine – Internet Archive.]

When the elder Fillmore’s Bathtub son attended intermediate school, he complained of the discipline. So did a lot of other good kids. We got a call from a parent asking if we’d join in a meeting with the new principal, and hoping to learn things were really hunky dory and offer assurances to our son, we went.

Texas was in the new throes of adjusting to the old TAAS (an acronym for words I’ve misplaced — Texas Academic Acheivement Stressproducer or something like that). The principal opened the meeting explaining she was unhappy with our kids’ behaviors.

Now, let’s pause for a moment. Our son had taken the TAAS twice to that point, and gotten perfect scores both times. The previous year he’d participated in a winning Odyssey of the Mind team, each of whose members had a parent at this “discipline” meeting. I think each child was also in the gifted and talented program. Looking back, almost all of them graduated in the top 10% of the class, there were a couple of Eagle Scouts and Girl Scout Gold Award winners in the bunch — these were kids who were self-disciplined to get education.

The principal talked about problems the school was having with noise. Talking had been suspended in the cafeteria, to help keep noise down. Kids were instructed not to talk while passing between classes, at their lockers, and not to close lockers noisily. Several kids had been disciplined for closing their lockers with too much gusto to please the noise storm troopers.

She then explained that her hope was the school could win the state’s highest level of recognition for achievement on the state standardized tests. Consequently, she was instructing all teachers to help work toward that goal. Physical education classes were being employed for test drill, which meant literally the kids didn’t get exercise, but instead were seated on the floor of the gymnasium doing test drills. Our son had already complained about how stupid that was.

But the principal chirpily explained that recesses had been suspended (these were fourth, fifth and sixth graders) to allow more time for drill.

When she announced that, after she had seen this done at a private school, the kids would be instructed to put their hands behind their backs when walking through the halls, silently, I asked her if she were familiar with the Texas prison system, and what crimes she thought our kids had committed.

“Crimes? They haven’t committed any crimes. What are you driving at?” she demanded.

So, I explained that on death row in Texas, the most grisly murderer had more free time than our kids, a right to recess and outdoor exercise, and more opportunity to socialize — and that lawyers argued even they were being driven mad by not enough time for communicating with other humans, etc.

The principal took great offense. I think she expected an apology from me. I had taken great offense by that point, too, that she was treating my kid like a criminal.

We took him out of that school, and enrolled him at an “academy” our district had set up to emphasize arts and science. He scored perfectly on the TAAS for his old school, and he complained a bit about missing some of his friends. But his performance rose, and his happiness rose markedly, when he got recess and wasn’t treated as a criminal from the start.

Occasionally, I wish we had pursued the issue through legal channels. There are schools in Texas that still suspend recess and PE for test drills, and where talking and socializing, and play, are frowned upon or outright forbidden — the things that kids need to stay sane and develop into top notch students.

What’s the difference between a school and a prison? There is little difference, really, except the methods of teaching. If your instructional methods and policies approach those used in prisons, perhaps you should change the sign on the front of your building. It’s the most slippery of slopes: When legislatures, school boards and administrators cut art and music programs, reduce extracurricular activities, clamp down on social interaction, and make other moves that erase the lines between “school” and “prison,” teachers become the last line of defense, the edge of the cliff before the abyss.

Collective punishment (prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949) is a hallmark of NCLB with all teachers and students held “accountable” for the test results of a few.

See Mr. Stager’s column. It’s a wake-up call, for anyone not deaf and blind.

[District Administration does not archive articles forever, and Mr. Stager’s 2007 article is long gone. Resurrected from the Wayback Machine – Internet Archive, is the full text. Be alert that links may not work. This was added here on January 29, 2020.]

What’s the Difference Between School and Prison?

Sunday, June 03, 2007 5:11 PM

Will Richardson’s blog, discussing a recent New York Times article about the New York Police Department converging on schools to search students for cellphones and iPods made me think about the school environments we create for children.

I worry about the climate of our schools and did a bit of research that confirmed my fears.

Let’s consider some recent events and emerging trends…

These and other trends “ripped from the headlines” lead me to wonder if we should just merge the education and penal systems into one bureaucracy and transform schools into prisons? Why wait? The distinctions are often difficult to discern.

The opinions stated in this article are those of the author.

17 Responses to What’s the difference between school and prison?

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Thank you very much for dropping by and sharing your view, Brandon.


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Reading time, socializing time, outdoor time, all critical to education. Your view is stunning, eye-opening, and interesting.

    Get your education where you can.


  3. Brandon Vedder says:

    Im in school at the moment and I’ve also been in a juvie correctional facility and I promise you I would rather go back to juvie than back to school. It was great there we had reading time, socializing time, outdoors and sometimes even the chance to weight lift. But in school I stay quite and wait for the next class period and in term waiting for the school day to be over. The only classes I like are the ones that dont follow traditional treaching methods and work with us and make us actually happy, but none of this will change if we just sit back and ignore it… im hoping by the time I have kids this will be changed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. NatashaJKershaw@hotmail.co.uk says:

    I bet they use some kind of magic to prevent us killing ourselves.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    It ain’t the teachers imposing prison conditions.


  6. Natasha says:

    OK,I have finally figured it out:
    The teachers are ex prisoners,why is why they are in school,the other word for prison.They pretend that they are asserting their previous crime onto you,to make sure that you will not do the same thing.But as they are alcoholics,who are using alcohol to forget their days in prison,they are really just doing it for the money,to keep up their personal insurance.Otherwise,they will be in prison again.


  7. Natasha says:

    I don’t understand what you mean.


  8. Nick K says:

    Natasha, to further what Ed wrote our crime is also that we don’t bow down and kiss the asses of the rich and agree that the burden of paying for this country should be solely on the shoulders of the poor and the middle class.

    Or to be put this simply and using a paraphrase from Breitbart…we don’t build statues of the rich and worship them as gods and American heroes.


  9. Ed Darrell says:

    According to the Tea Party, we committed the crime of being born not rich.


  10. Natasha says:

    So what is the actual ‘crime’ that we all committed in the first place?


  11. Ed Darrell says:

    Our kids attended public schools. So did I, and my wife, and our parents. Did you even read my post?


  12. someone says:

    I’m glad your kid was gifted and you’re rich enough to send your kid to a private school, but some people aren’t that fortunate. Yes, school is like a prison. And some of us could probably be “good” despite not being “gifted” or whatever it is the school prison decided us to be…


  13. […] be sure to see this post from Ms. Cornelius at A Shrewdness of Apes.  If you’re having difficulty telling the difference between school and a prison — or if your school kid is having that difficulty, it’s time to act. Via doxpop.com. […]


  14. Anonymous says:

    Discipline or not, school ends up being like “prison lite” with the bullying and violence and the teachers not caring about bullied kids – lest their cars get keyed or worse. I was bullied from day one until I got out of school. School is a huge reason I decided early on to never have a family so any offspring would never undergo the horror of school.


  15. OmegaWolf747 says:

    That’s just sick. Schools are so prison-like, especially nowadays, that I fear for the future of this nation. If people come out of an authoritarian environment, they will expect all their lives to be like that and will not appreciate rights and freedoms. We need to either make schools libertarian and democratic, or eliminate them altogether. The only way for children to truly love rights and freedoms is for them to have rights and freedoms from day one.


  16. I am SO SO SO glad I never went to a school like that! We always had recess twice in elementary, and PE class is mostly for exercise and games and sports.


  17. spudbeach says:

    As a high school teacher, every time somebody asks for a potty-break, I think to myself “I went to four years of undergrad, 8 years of grad school and busted my butt getting a teaching license so I could regulate people taking a potty break??”

    Now if only there were some way to keep students from hanging out in the bathroom or wandering the hall after I give them a potty break . . . .


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