Tag Archives: Urban Education

Reframing the School Safety Debate (Notes from AERA, Part 1)

by Dr. Emery Petchauer

petchauerLast month I participated in the 2009 American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting along with thousands of other educational researchers. Each year the meeting is an incredibly stimulating time for me, especially since it comes late in the academic year. One element of the meeting that always stimulates my own intellectual work is hearing research that is a bit outside of my own area of expertise, but that asks piercingquestions and attempts to answer them in creative ways. In this two-part entry, I want to give attention (albeit streamlined) to two researchers’ research agendas from AERA that are doing just this.

If the ideological lines within the issue of school safety could be drawn to create two camps, one would be those who believe that hard-nosed, zero-tolerance policies (including surveillance cameras and metal detectors–as modeled by correctional facilities) are necessary to keep schools safe and remove the “bad apples” when necessary. On the other side of the ideological line would be those who share the same ultimate goal but believe that such policies criminalize youth, make schools look more like prisons, and create dehumanizing learning environments.

Dr. Decoteau J. Irby’s work on school safety and violence emerges from a penetrating understanding of the competing ideologies and discourses on the topic. With such an understanding, he de-politicizes and reframes the issue in a way so that educators, researchers, and policymakers on both sides can see it in common ways and actually work together to make schools safer and more humanizing.

Dr. Irby does this by framing school safety according to the concepts of net-deepening and net-widening. His recently completed dissertation at Temple University applied these concepts in an empirical examination of the changes in the Philadelphia Public School behavioral codes and system of punishment over a 15-year period. Essentially, the study illustrates (a) how over time and according to recent educational initiatives aimed at urban schools, the behavioral code expanded to define and include more student behaviors as deviant (net-widening), and (b) how the penalties for infractions have became more severe (net-deepening). As an example, the study illustrates how a behaviors such as running in the halls were not classified as deviant in the past, and how other behaviors such as cursing at a teacher can now receive more severe punishments through classification as verbal assault instead of simple disrespect.

An approach such as this that gives us new ways of seeing also makes research easily translatable and transferable into the public domain—a quality that is too lacking in educational research. As the Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will have to make some clear decisions with No Child Left Behind in the near future, it is research of this nature that they should review to inform their decisions.

For more information about Dr. Irby’s work, I invite readers to contact him directly at decoteauirby@yahoo.com.

In part 2 of this entry, I will give attention to Dr. Bree Picower at New York University and her work on the “Tools of Whiteness” explaining how White teachers in urban settings maintain dominant racial hierarchies.

Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; his current research includes teacher preparation for ethnic minority students particularly at HBCUs and how involvement in hip-hop implicates students’ educational approaches, experiences, and lives.