LAWRENCE — Schools and prisons share many similarities: authoritarian structure, emphasis on silence and order, schedules to follow, rules not to break.
“Teachers and administrators need to discontinue the relationship between punishment and education and begin to create environments where students can thrive in nonpunitive ways,” said Nikia Robert, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas.
Her article titled “An Ethic of Abolition: Becoming Educational Sanctuaries” addresses the uncanny resemblance between the educational/industrial complex and the U.S. carceral state. Both employ policies, pedagogies and practices to respond punitively to communal transgressions. In response, Robert offers an abolitionist theological ethic to create educational sanctuaries. It appears in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics.
“We use punishment to scare people into obedience," Robert said. "But what you produce are robots, not sentient beings with critical thinking who are accountable and aware of how their actions may harm others. As a professor, I’m always looking for transformative ways to build work ethic and curiosity, so students aren’t motivated to produce simply based on their fear of being punished.”
Robert also argues how students in underrepresented groups — ranging from pre-K to postsecondary institutions — become particularly vulnerable when punishment is used to “perpetuate anti-Blackness, patriarchy and other social inequities.” This in many ways mirrors the carceral system, she said.
The educator became further mindful of the similarities found in schools and prisons when teaching an Inside-Out course at a state prison.
“When you look at the yard versus a college campus, it appears very similar,” she said.
Her course was called “Prisons, Punishment and Redemption,” taught at the California Institution for Women in Chino.
“A lot of the women there were lifers,” she said. “It was a really meaningful course for them and for me. I hope to bring something like it here to Kansas — we certainly have plenty of prisons.”
Robert said that schools are not doing enough to make a distinction between a classroom and a jail cell.
“We’re here as educators wanting to create sanctuaries so that students can thrive as whole beings. We don’t want these kinds of docile, empty people who are afraid of consequences,” she said.
“We can start by looking at more equitable grading strategies. Using rubrics, using more marginal comments, allowing students to have retakes. So in other words, moving away from this rigid and punitive model and doing more to cultivate the whole student.”
As her article notes, Robert maintains a personal connection to this topic. Her daughter currently attends a K-8 private school in California.
“She’s been so deeply affected by the detention system," Robert said. "So much so that if it was cold and she didn’t have a hat or coat that conform to their uniform policy, she would risk her own health rather than violate the policy out of fear of getting detention. I could not convince her otherwise because my daughter is a rule-follower.”
Since that situation emerged, Robert has been working with the school to put an end to detention.
“Why would an educational institution have detention? That’s something you find in a prison,” she said. “Surely, we can be more creative and spend more effort to think of ways to respond to harms, other than just saying, ‘Go to detention!’”
A New York native, Robert just began her first semester at KU. She is also executive director of Abolitionist Sanctuary, a “national faith-based coalition united against the moral crisis of mass incarceration and the criminalization of impoverished Black motherhood.” Her research focuses on ethics.
Robert continues to explore ways of replacing punishment in educational settings with something more effective and humane. Noting KU’s “rich legacy of racial integration in sports that coincides with an impactful history in the town of Lawrence and abolitionist movements,” she hopes to build a course, and possibly a conference, which connects the university with local community organizers in order to double-down on the commitment to building abolitionist sanctuaries in education.
“Punishment is just the easy way out. But to get to the root problem requires creativity. It requires community. How do we come together and think about solutions so that we can repair the harms, restore the relationships and rebuild a more just and equitable system where everyone can thrive?” she said.
“I don’t think prisons are fixable, but I hope schools are.”
Top photo: iStock