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Mae D. Quinn

Reprinted from: Mae D. Quinn, The Fallout from Our Blackboard Battlegrounds: a Call for Withdrawal and a New Way Forward, 15 Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 541 (Spring 2012)


War is not healthy for children and other living things --Anti-Vietnam War slogan attributed to Lorraine Schneider, member of the group Another Mother for Peace (1967)


In 1973, Time magazine described a national school system under siege. In its article Blackboard Battlegrounds: A Question of Survival, Time reported that troubled urban youth were rejecting education, terrorizing teachers, and turning the country's schoolyards into battlefields. Claiming that simple survival in the face of such insurgency had become the top priority of school administrators, the article quoted one educator as stating, You can't teach anything unless you have an atmosphere without violence.

Despite concerns about a culture of aggression and hostility within the education setting, the article went on to laud new national experiments in increased school-based security and policing, including an on-call 80-man strike force that one city employed to thwart potential activities of wayward students. Time conceded that at-risk youth, whom it described as being born to the jungle of the slums, were largely victims of societal and systemic neglect. Yet it joined the growing chorus of voices that urged the forcible take-back of schools as a step toward winning the war against urban youth--largely poor students and students of color. In doing so, Time acknowledged such strategies would likely have an impact on the larger community outside of the schoolhouse walls.

Sadly, over thirty-five years later, the United States has yet to stand down from this combative orientation toward certain children. In fact, campaigns against poor and minority students have only grown more complex and sophisticated in their approaches, and their implications have become increasingly palpable and profound. The campaigns are clearly having an impact on communities outside of the schoolhouse walls. This Article explores the implications of our continuing--and now multiple--wars on such youth and calls for withdrawal from combat. As this Article will describe, these vulnerable young people continue to find themselves embattled by classroom educational policies and practices that threaten their wellbeing. It further asserts that, as is always the case during wartime, such tactics have placed such children at great risk, endangering their wellbeing and seriously reducing their chances to thrive and, in some cases, survive.

On one hand, society continues to frame poor and minority youth as troubled and violent populations to be feared, managed, and in many instances, forcibly rooted out. School-districting policies and funding formulas create structures that separate privileged youth from those who are poor and, often times, minorities. Beyond contending with these divide-and-conquer strategies, school children from marginalized communities face enhanced policing efforts, discipline proceedings, and push-out practices. Under the guise of promoting safe schools and gun-free zones, such strategies leave children feeling as if they are under attack. For many, it results in their forcible removal from educational placements and communities. Thus, the children actually become prisoners of the war on youth, which further limits their life chances.

On the other hand, school systems have often encouraged these same children to embrace violence, by luring them into a life of actual armed conflict. They accomplish this through the savvy and strategic efforts of the U.S. military. These tactics include accessing otherwise confidential school records and recruiting children on public school campuses across the country to join the armed forces. Other tactics include using comic books and high-tech video games to draw in such children, which clearly targets some of our most vulnerable young people. Moreover, the federal government has begun helping states divert hundreds of at-risk children to federally funded, residential, military-run academies, where they are urged to take up arms, enlist to become soldiers, and fight wars abroad. Here again, in an even more direct way, our new blackboard battlegrounds work to reduce the chances for survival of our most at-risk youth.

As noted, this Article seeks to document the manifest hostilities that poor and minority children face in our nation's schools. It does so based in part on the professional and personal experiences of the author as a clinical law professor who teaches a Juvenile Rights and Re-Entry Clinic. It critiques the continuing campaigns against such youth in the United States and urges decision-makers to seriously rethink the nation's priorities and recommit the country to the cause of educating children. This Article further serves as a call to action to join conscientious objectors who reject the current state of affairs. It suggests that we must demand and engage in a different kind of surge, one that might help to reduce the casualties and provide a true new way forward for our most imperiled young people.