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Odis Johnson, School Surveillance Expert

Does More Scrutiny Mean Lower Grades?

By Vaughn Cockayne

Odis Johnson is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Social Policy at Johns Hopkins University. His recent research has gained attention for indicating that surveillance in schools has led to more suspensions and lower grades.

The study, which he co-authored with Jason Jabbari, a data analyst at Washington University in Saint Louis, MO., found that a disproportionate amount of minority students had been impacted negatively by increased surveillance in schools — and that justice had not been handed down equally.

Johnson told Digital Privacy News that more progressive and restorative measures should be taken to correct the course that schools are on. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The study mentions an overall trend of criminalizing children. How does introducing children to surveillance and disciplinary systems at any early age influence that?

It’s a great question. The Office of Civil Rights study that was published in 2014 found disparity in discipline among preschoolers. African-American males were about 47% of the suspensions of preschoolers. The criminalization starts pretty early. 

There has been an increase in surveillance strategies even in elementary schools but this is probably most impactful in the later grades, high school, in particular, which was the context of the study. 

So, that study used nationally representative data of U.S. high schools and we looked  at a number of surveillance strategies, including metal detectors, random book bag searches, clear book bags, hall freezes and identification requirements. 

We found that these tactics related heavily to performance in math and later college entry.

What is the school-to-prison pipeline and how does school surveillance play into it?

It is quite a concept. It includes a lot of things and, in fact, within schools there are a number of strategies that are in use that constitute the school-to-prison pipeline that don’t necessarily result in kids being incarcerated. 

So, it is not just something that ends up in referral or incarceration, but a whole host of other things that you have seen in the news. 

For example, there is “cultural policing” because schools have a commitment to character and moral education and you’ll often see these stories [in which] kids are held back from graduation or sports because their hair is too long or their appearance has been deemed unprofessional.

Unfortunately, disruption in an education environment is actually a felony in many states so even cultural appearance is something that could get you in trouble and constitute a school-to-prison pipeline. 

In a podcast concerning your study of the school-to-prison pipeline you discussed “cultural control.” What is “cultural control” and how has it been altered by increased surveillance?

Schools that ranked highest in suspensions created an environment that spilled over to kids within those schools who were not themselves suspended. 

It had the effect of lowering the mathematics [sores] and odds of entering college even for kids who were not technically in the school-to-prison pipeline. So just attending a high surveillance school has some consequences. 

We were curious about whether or not the actual technologies that were in place, that are the detection tools for punishment, had a similar impact that actual punishment did. And we found that just having the technology in schools was related to lower mathematic scores and college acceptance. 

Again, we are saying that there are consequences for making schools more prison-like. Because it might preclude kids feeling like they are suspects and not students.

How does the advent of surveillance in schools produce racially biased outcomes in justice?

Their implementation. The fact that these technologies are more likely to be found in schools with high minority populations and urban schools really makes it so that a certain group of kids are experiencing a higher level of surveillance than others.

Of course, it’s not, if you look for it you’ll find it, but it does set up a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially when some of the behaviors that are similar across racial groups are not viewed as such.

And we know there is implicit bias out there that makes the actions of African Americans and Latino populations seem more adult-like, more threatening, than the exact same behaviour that we find in white kids. 

When you add surveillance to a systemically racist system, then you see disproportionate increases in suspensions and such.

What are examples of the “secondary impacts” that in-school surveillance can produce?

While we might see that individuals who are suspended would then have lower college attendance and math scores, they are not attending schools alone. They are in a  really complex social system. 

And we are then asking, “What happens to their peers?” and we are finding that in high suspension schools, in particular, all kids have lower math scores and lower chances of going to college because they are in a school that uses those particular surveillance strategies and have those suspension rates.

In the last decade, surveillance technology used on students has become more sophisticated. Do you think the increased and enhanced surveillance is a natural progression? 

I think artificial intelligence and facial recognition software programs are creating a web of biometrics that we really can’t shake.

I think the problem is that we found A.I. replicates a lot of the racial bias that we find in the human population so we should be concerned with these technologies that teachers believe are objective. 

For some reason, there is this belief that numbers are free from human related bias, when nothing could be further from the truth. 

Violence in schools has declined over the past decade, or, as a matter of fact, over the last three decades. It begs the question, “Why are we putting in more surveillance?”

You discuss some alternatives to social control in the study. Please explain how these methods can help solve the problems that surveillance was meant to solve.

We’ve been looking at a couple of things. One, restorative justice and restorative practices as a way for educators to rethink perceived student misbehavior.

So, instead of punishing and suspending [a student], include a focus on restorative practices where we look at the behavior and have that person understand it as an infraction against the community. We also bring the community on board, meaning actually have a conversation with the person that has been offended — and repair that relationship. 

Because if you just suspend, that student will go home. And we’ll come back to school with the same unhealthy relationship and perhaps be even more angry now. Restorative practices say, Hey, we need to repair this relationship. And that’s what’s most important.

You discuss transitioning away from punitive punishment to more rehabilitative measures. Could surveillance be a part of a school’s rehabilitative measures?

I have some ambivalence. And, of course, I’m not suggesting that we remove measures that make schools safer. Cameras should be at every school entrance and school grounds should be secure —  I do agree with that. 

But, I also think that corporal punishment — which is still permitted in some states — I don’t think that is where we need to go. I also think that some of these pat downs are a good way to make students feel safe, as opposed to making them feel like suspects. 

And here, I also want to say that one of the injustices in some schools is that a lot of the rights that adults enjoy, such as probable cause and Miranda rights, are not even available to kids in school.

You said recently that “there are no neutral numbers.” Please expand on what you mean and how that mentality helped with your findings concerning the impact of surveillance.

Okay, I’ll give you a great example of this — and this gets to the heart of policing, community policing, and setting policy related to community policing and violence. 

So, if you have an officer in a neighborhood that engages a suspect or makes an arrest, but the reason why they engage the person was because of color, or there was a bias or there may be implicit bias that led them to scrutinize them more than they would some other person if they were of different racial backgrounds. 

And so that engagement may happen among many officers, or maybe that officer perpetuates that same type of engagement within that neighborhood over time. And then those numbers are aggregated up to a neighborhood-level indicator of violence or crime. 

Now have this number that an agency or or public officials, like your policymakers look at and say, “Hey, this neighborhood is actually a high-crime neighborhood, we need to do something about that.”

And that means then, that the black neighborhoods are more likely to appear having higher crime rates and deserving of greater and stronger police presence and tactics.