Brutalizing Kids: Painful Lessons in the Pedagogy of School Violence

Thursday, 08 October 2009 14:55 By Henry A. Giroux, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

Brutalizing Kids: Painful Lessons in the Pedagogy of School Violence
(Illustration: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t, Adapted From: ~Essence of a Dream~ / flickr and jez page / flickr)

    On May 20, 2009, Marshawn Pitts, a 15-year-old African-American boy, who is also a special needs student, was walking down the corridor of the Academy for Learning High School in Dolton, Illinois. A police officer in the school noticed that the boy's shirt was not tucked in and started shouting and swearing at him. Pitts claims that he immediately started to tuck in his shirt, but it was too late. Within seconds, the police officer pushed him into the lockers, repeatedly punched him and then slammed him to the ground and pushed his face to the floor. The officer then applied a face down, take-down hold to the child, a maneuver that has resulted in over 20 deaths nationwide and is banned in eight states. Pitts said he was terrified and was having a hard time breathing as a result of the use of the forceful restraint. As a result of this unprovoked attack by a police officer, who is supposed to protect kids in school, the young man ended up with a broken nose and a bruised jaw. In case the reader suspects I have confused the facts, the assault was caught on school security cameras and ended up on Youtube (see below).

Indeed, a 15-year-old boy with an early childhood brain injury and a learning disorder, attending a school for special needs children, was tackled and sustained injury in the school by a police officer because of a dress code violation. Pitts was not carrying a weapon. He did not threaten anyone. He was not dealing drugs. In fact, he appears to have given an entirely new meaning to what constitutes a clear and present danger, warranting the use of force by the police - he simply did not have his shirt tucked in, and for this he was beaten by a police officer three times his size. Harmless acts of indiscretion are now elevated to the status of a dangerous crime.

    One could argue that this case is so bizarre and outrageous that the only logical explanation is to call into question the cop's (not the kid's) mental capacities. How could a reasonable adult trained as a professional police official assault so viciously a young boy for no apparent or legitimate reason? But that is too easy. The brutalizing behavior exhibited by this unhinged police officer would be better understood as symptomatic of a set of larger forces in American society that are increasingly defining kids through a youth crime complex that touches almost every aspect of their lives - extending from the streets they walk on to the schools and community centers in which they spend most of their time. This is not meant to suggest that school violence is not a real problem. Schools have an obligation to create safe environments for all of our children, environments that are welcoming rather than threatening, conducive to real learning and attentive to the problems students face. Administrators and teachers should connect to student histories, be respectful of their experiences, encourage their voices and protect their rights. At the same time, school safety must take seriously the broader educational goal of educating students "to participate in the complex and infinitely worthwhile labor of forming citizens, men and women capable of furthering what's best about us and forestalling what's worst."[1] The tragic death of 16-year-old Chicago student, Derrion Albert, captured on video recently; the 34 school age children that have been killed in Chicago this school year; the 290 wounded in 2008; and the fact that one recent study states that 61 percent of all school children are exposed to varying degrees of violence speaks to the culture of violence that young people face everyday both in and out of schools. This bears repeating: in and out of schools. School violence cannot be disconnected from the larger violence that filters through American society, nor can it be addressed by demonizing or beating kids or, increasingly, militarizing their schools. Nor can it be addressed by simply pumping money into cash-strapped schools simply to promote standardized testing. The underlying economic, social and political causes of violence are largely tied to a society in which young people, especially poor, minority youth, simply do not matter any longer and are considered disposable. Removed from the discourse of social investment, if not the social contract itself, they are destined to be unemployed, having been warehoused in schools often lacking the most basic resources, and subject to a culture of violence from which they can rarely escape and almost never transform on their own.

    In a society in which young people are increasingly the victims of adult abuse, maligned as dangerous and undeserving of investment, it is not surprising, given how little money or time is spent on them, that they are treated as a threat, and their behavior endlessly monitored, controlled and subject to harsh disciplinary measures. Schools, especially for poor kids, are largely viewed as either testing centers where young people are simply bored into passivity or submission, or they are modeled after prisons - subject to punishing zero-tolerance policies, lock-downs, constant surveillance, humiliating security measures and intimidated and sometimes assaulted by security and police who are often armed and roam the corridors. In short, if you are a poor black, brown or white kid, you are not considered a student or a productive citizen, but a potential criminal. Schools now form partnerships with the police and private security agencies. Teachers, once the heroes in this coming-of-age narrative, are now a sideshow, most are deskilled, reduced to technicians teaching for the high-stake testing machine and often forced to share their responsibilities with armed security forces. Administrators now confuse management with leadership and become the pawns of corporate and punishing forces they can no longer control. Instead of investing in disadvantaged youth, American society now punishes them, and instead of preparing them for a productive life in the larger society, too many young people are pushed and shoved into a criminal justice system. They move from the schools directly to the juvenile detention centers, if not adult prisons. And when money is pumped into the schools, it is increasingly diverted away from addressing real problems such as the need for more teachers, social workers, health workers, teaching aids and safe avenues of protection for kids traveling to and from school. Instead, the money is invested in metal detectors, surveillance cameras, security guards, high security fences and armed police with dogs.

    While all youth are now suspect, poor, minority youth have become the primary targets of modes of social regulation, crime control and disposability - now, the major prisms that define many of the public institutions and spheres that govern their lives. The model of policing that governs all kinds of social behaviors and interactions also constructs a narrow range of meaning through which young people define themselves. This rhetoric and practice of policing, surveillance and punishment has little to do with the project of youth as the social investment of the future and a great deal to do with increasingly powerful modes of disciplinary regulation, pacification and control - elements comprising a "youth control complex," whose prominence in American society points to a state of affairs in which democracy has lost its claim while the claims of democracy go unheard.

    Students being miseducated, mistreated, criminalized and arrested through a form of penal pedagogy in locked down schools that resemble prisons is a vicious and incredibly visible index of the degree to which mainstream politicians and the American public have turned their backs on young people in general and poor minority youth in particular. As schools are reconfigured to resemble prisons, crime becomes the central metaphor used to define the school environment while criminalizing the behavior of young people becomes the most valued strategy in mediating the relationship between educators and students. The consequences of these policies for young people suggest not only an egregious abdication of responsibility - as well as reason, judgment and restraint - on the part of administrators, teachers and parents, but also a new role for schools as they become more prison-like and more segregated as a consequence, eagerly adapting to their role as an adjunct of the punishing state. One wonders how many more kids have to be brutalized in their schools and killed outside of schools before the American public wakes up and takes seriously not only their responsibility to young people, but also their commitment to a mode of politics and a future that is on the side of young people rather than a vision shaped largely by the values of the corporate state and the disciplinary apparatuses of the punishing criminal justice system. What does this particular video of Marshawn Pitts being brutalized by a police officer and the equally heart breaking video of Derrion Albert being beaten to death by his peers tell us about what kids are actually learning in schools? Far too often, dominant media, school administrators, politicians, and others insist on the pathology of privatized and collective violence that runs roughshod over kids' lives in and out of schools. In the case of the police officer who brutally beat Marshawn, the comforting solution is to privatize the assault, an example of an individual pathology, the work of a "bad apple." The beating of Derrion by other kids similarly speaks to an alleged culture of depravity that has been defined for the last three decades as Black, urban and dangerous. In both cases, the systemic underlying neoliberal economic, institutional, educational and racist underpinnings of such violence disappear into the logic of individual pathology or into the always crowd-pleasing categorization of the culture of blackness as pathological. Neither answer will do, at least not in an aspiring democracy. Finally, what do these acts of violence against children tell us about what kids are learning through the pedagogical force of the larger culture? What do they tell us about a society that refuses to recognize that the issue is not what is wrong with children, but what is wrong with American society?


    [1] Mark Slouka, "Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School," Harper's Magazine (September 2009), p. 34.


     Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network chair in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. This article touches on a number of themes taken up in his newest book, "Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?," which has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan. His homepage is

Henry A. Giroux

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. He has taught at Boston University, Miami University of Ohio, and Penn State University. His most recent books include: Youth in a Suspect Society (Palgrave, 2009); Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy (Paradigm, 2010); Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (Paradigm, 2010); and he is working on two new books titled Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism and Education and the Crisis of Public Values, both of which will be published in 2011 by Peter Lang Publishers. Giroux is also a member of Truthout's Board of Directors. His website is



Last modified on Friday, 09 October 2009 15:01