Penal Policy in Schools

I vividly remember quite a strong sense of injustice while matriculating through primary school, secondary school, and college. At the time, adults would tell me that I was "acting out" (which, to be fair, is quite likely), and that they knew better (which, to be fair, they probably do), and that I didn't yet understand how the world worked (which I still don't).

After my brief time studying criminology and law, I have learnt more and more about the stringent, meticulous, exhaustive process that the Criminal Justice System embarks on to successfully prosecute someone of a crime.

There's evidential criteria to meet, professional representation, impartial judges, an appeal process, and thoroughly evaluated sentencing guidelines that must be adhered to.

This exhaustive process is not something even slightly present in schools in the UK. Looking back on those 14 years spent in formal education, I remember a much more brazen form of justice. One more based on what one teacher felt had happened, and with potentially devastating consequences.

Let's take the Due Process mantra of the UK: "Innocent until proven guilty." This is a fundamental philosophy of the way we treat people suspected of criminal behaviour. In order for citizens to respect and comply with our laws, our legal system must be seen to be fair and to care for those citizens. Not punishing a person for a crime, until it has been proved that they committed it.

In our schools however, a child can be put into detention - a form of incapacitation, and at a push, a form of incarceration - with no checking of the evidence, no one to fight their case for them. This is especially pertinent when we consider that children are not as capable of articulating what happened, or why they did something as an adult. And yet, an adult receives representation, and a child does not.

And while it's certainly true that going to detention for an hour is not nearly as bad as going to prison, or serving a community sentence; our schools still dish out very serious and potentially life changing sentences (for example, expulsion), except these punishments are dispensed for actions that are not criminal.

Both detention and expulsion have far more nuanced ramifications than just being put in a room for an hour, or having to change school.

With detention, staying later in school can result in the pupil missing important engagements, like work. Or repercussions from angry parents (who may further punish). Depending on the severity of the suspected offense, a student might be abandoned by their friend group – perhaps affecting social and emotional development if this friendlessness is sustained for a long enough time.

With expulsion, the student being taken away from their established friend group, a group that provides emotional and practical support. During the interim time between being expelled and being enrolled in a new school, days and weeks of schooling are missed, potentially affecting the educational attainment of the pupil. Studies like this one suggest that the more times a student is suspended or expelled, the higher the chances are of that student being prosecuted in later life.

Again, potential repercussions from angry parents, which may sound deceptively easy-going, and maybe even deserved. But when we consider that the home lives of students who behave badly in school are often poor (with heightened likelihood of abuse and neglect), the possibility of teachers taking actions that make parents frustrated and angry with their kids becomes more serious.

Oftentimes, "rough" schools are unintentionally created, as places where more and more misbehaving children end up after being expelled - frequently in areas of low income and high unemployment. Needless to say that the funding for these schools is significantly less than that of their well-behaved counterparts. Therefore less qualified, less gifted teachers can be afforded, less up-to-date equipment can be provided, and facilities are often of a much lower quality. All this affects the educational attainment of the student, and therefore their future.

So if the consequences can be so severe, how can we still allow these punishments to be handed out without more oversight? Without more standardized rules of evidential thresholds, and mandatory sentencing guidelines?

The idea that a pupil could receive any of these sanctions without having committed the act is equally (if not more) disgusting as the idea of an adult going to prison for a crime they did not commit. The key injustice here being that the child is serving their punishment, when it is not even a criminal act they are suspected of.