Colonial Roots of School Discipline

Despite evidence that punitive punishment is ineffective and damaging— at worst, pushing vulnerable children out of school into the carceral system and, at best, driving student resentment and a breakdown of the teacher-student relationship— we still enact them in the forms of detention, suspension, expulsion, and in extreme cases, practices that replicate our carceral system by introducing police, surveillance, fines and probation into schools. However, if you consider our current system of punitive discipline in schools as a continuation of European colonialism, we can begin to pick apart the origins and evolution of how our schools are increasingly operating as an extension of the penal system through hundreds of years of intentionally oppressive design.

In this paper, I will pull from historical accounts, current research, and real-world events to explore how colonial practices of domination have persisted and replicated social inequality in our classrooms. Finally, I will discuss what we can do as educators and adults to resist perpetuating these harmful practices and look beyond the ideology and practices from the colonial era that continues to clip the wings of our children and wreak havoc on BIPOC communities.


In their quest for power, resources and wealth, England and other European powers violently expanded their power across the globe. This would eventually mean that small countries of a few million people would come to control vast amounts of land full of occupants who were unwilling to be ruled and exploited by the colonists, and often resisted and rebelled. We see the beginnings of the modern system of behavioral control and subsequently, of punishment in the United States and these practices establish the throughline through which we see later replicated in schools to control student populations, especially racially and ethnically minoritized students.

Origins of Civil Policing

For the purposes of our analysis, I will focus on a British invention: the civil police; although other forms of police have existed before then, they have largely been extensions of the military and therefore, use the same tactics and weapons as the military while the civil police force was made explicitly to not be militarized and is instead governed by officials and officers from the civilian population (Go, 2020). This force was the London Metropolitan Police in 1829 as created by Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing. The London Metropolitan Police was itself a reproduction of a brutal, militarized policing system Sir Robert Peel had established fifteen years before called the Irish Constabulary whose police protocols which were used to oppress the Irish population under British colonization in the 1800s are still present in our modern police forces (Go, 2020).

While this model was later formally adopted in the US through the establishment of the first official police force in Boston in 1838 followed shortly by other cities such as New York, the history of police in the US actually starts in 1704 when the first slave patrols were organized in Charleston (Brucato, 2021). Further, the early to mid-1800s saw the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the US. The influx of both free Black men and Irish refugees (who were fleeing from their colonized homeland and the Irish Potato Famine) in search of opportunities and safety threatened the white Protestant power structures in the North Atlantic who then responded by establishing police forces that surveilled and criminalized Black and Irish communities and protected White Protestant interests (Ignatiev, 2015).

Influence of Religion

Now that the beginnings of what will become the US system of policing have been established, this next section will uncover the underlying ideology fueling the punitive, individualistic, and outcome-based systems of behavioral control in both the criminal “justice” system and schools. As the first adopters of the modern police force in the US, the Northeast’s unique religious makeup injected their religious values and moral standards into a punitive ideology. The Puritans of New England, though not completely homogenous in religious belief, assumed that human nature is inherently evil and people must be saved from their intrinsic sinfulness and so, strict discipline must be enforced and violators must be punished (Travers, 1980). Usually, this punishment takes the form of public humiliation and social ostracization. For more severe transgressions, the consequences included inflicting physical pain in public usually through whippings, brandings, maimings and sometimes the death sentence (Travers, 1980). The public nature of these punishments also serves to deter others from acting the same way. Since they thought of sinfulness as intrinsic, any behavior of an individual must then also be solely that individual’s fault (Travers, 1980).

As mentioned earlier, formal policing in America could be seen as a way to reify existing power structures and enforce the boundaries of race-based castes. Religion, as in the case of Puritans, was a crucial supporting pillar in the creation of the racial caste. With race correlated with moral standards set by religious beliefs, the logical extrapolation then implies that those who don’t follow the dominant faith, everyone except Protestant Caucasians, are morally corrupt and pose a threat to social order and peace if not segregated and controlled. As slavery became law and human beings were legally reduced to property, enslaved Africans were no longer capable of becoming upstanding Christians and this became part of the bedrock that has upheld anti-Black racism in the American mythos despite Christianity being integral in many African-American communities today (Kopelson, 2016). 

Religion and School

In the beginnings of the United States, higher-level education was reserved for the very wealthy and well-connected or for those training to be clergy. As schooling was very religiously oriented, many of the religious views and practices we discussed were replicated in the classroom. A child was under the absolute rule of the adult as Christians were under the absolute rule of God. Children were seen as untrained adults: given enough corrections, usually through corporal punishment such as beatings or public humiliation tactics such as being made to wear a dunce hat, a child can be made to act like an upstanding adult (Travers,1980). In other words, discipline was seen as physical punishment to force the child to change their behavior under threat of pain. If a child was resistant to the classroom structure or the educational material then that is their intrinsic sin manifesting and so, the behavior must be punished out of them. Corporal punishment in schools and the earliest forms of colonial social control, then, are directly connected through the colonists’ religious beliefs and its emphasis on correcting individual behaviors at the expense of the person’s inner life or consideration of their environment (Travers,  1980). 

Felon Disenfranchisement and Marginalization

Throughout US history, the police are an integral instrument in maintaining the socioeconomic dominance of the colonial ruling class first by enforcing slavery and then after the end of Reconstruction. While the British colonists’ practice of felon disenfranchisement has been found by some historians to have originated in Ancient Greece and Rome, it was sparingly applied within the colonies. The question of felon disenfranchisement (from now on referred to as FD) was not a debate at the national level until the post-Reconstruction era when white segregationists violently reinstated a white supremacist state that prevented African-Americans who had regained their freedom from voting and participating in public life (Ghosh & Rockey, 2019). The first FD laws were passed in Kentucky in 1792 but it was not until 1868, the year that the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, that there was a mass adoption and enforcement of FD laws. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were written with a loophole that allowed a specific subsection of the population to be denied the rights that they are supposed to guarantee: felons (Alexander, 2019).

Through the exploitation of the Thirteenth Amendment loophole, marginalized peoples (especially Black and Brown people) who, through the criminalization of their behaviors, were labeled as felons who, as a result, were summarily disenfranchised, otherwise denied means of gaining economic and political power, and punished with the equivalent of slave labor (Alexander, 2019). The Thirteenth Amendment stipulated that slavery would be outlawed except “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment indicated states could deny the vote to anyone who participated in a vague categorization of “rebellion or other crimes” (Alexander, 2019). As a result, once labeled as a felon, it led to a self-perpetuating cycle of criminalization and marginalization of the labeled individual that allowed the United States to disappear millions of people into the carceral system and maintain its racial caste.

School Punishment Through Marginalization

Similarly, schools have historically had a number of tools to isolate and marginalize students that are deemed disruptive or unteachable: some of the most common of which are detention, suspension and expulsion. Especially for students who hold marginalized racial identities and have survived significant adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), schools’ insensitivity to their lived experiences coupled with incompatible cultural expectations and faculty’s susceptibility to implicit bias when writing up students for subjective behaviors (e.g. willful defiance or disrespect) have resulted in disproportionate rates of detentions, suspensions and expulsions of Black and Brown students (Bal, 2016; Girvan et al., 2017).

Rather than supporting students with the greatest academic, social and emotional needs, schools have historically deemed them to be a drain on resources and disruptive to teachers’ ability to teach and other students’ ability to learn (Noguera, 2003). Thus, they are pushed out through such disciplinary practices like suspension and expulsion that only serve to replicate systemic marginalization and carceral trends where the types of students who are pushed out and excluded from the education system entirely (disproportionately Black and Latino, male, academic low achievers) mirror the prison population in a school-to-prison pipeline (Noguera, 2003, Mallett, 2015, Wolf & Kupchik, 2016, Leban & Masterson, 2021).

The Evolution of Punishment to Surveillance

From the mid-1970s, the population of the incarcerated in the American penal system increased exponentially and this is directly correlated with federal policies that prioritized Nixon’s “War on Drugs” which blamed poor communities of color as the reason for society’s ills and provided a convenient political campaign message. During this time, we see the colonial policing system evolve its main function from a reactionary model to a proactive state of targeted surveillance (e.g hot spots policing, crime forecasting software, etc.) (Hunt, 2019). Since then, police budgets and police presence in marginalized communities have significantly increased and so have prison populations (Wakefield & Uggen, 2010). With this targeting of minoritized communities, there was a rise in surveillance of these communities. In some poor Black neighborhoods, the incidence of police stops can be as high as 500 per every 1,000 residents (Goffman, 2014). The increase in mass incarceration has worsened the marginalization that poor communities of color have experienced as their members are overpoliced and incarcerated for crimes and behaviors that more affluent non-communities-of-color go un-surveilled and unpunished (Goffman, 2014). That is not to say that equal surveillance and punishment across race and class is the solution; rather, no community should have to suffer under oppressive state surveillance and incarceration.

Surveillance in Schools

As was discussed earlier with corporal punishment, punitive school discipline continues to mirror the evolution of punishment within the criminal “justice” system. In recent years, it now goes beyond marginalization to pre-emptive surveillance: the US has seen an alarming rise in the surveillance of our students, especially post-Columbine and then post-Sandy Hook when many schools started bringing the police and metal detectors into the buildings in the name of “safety”. Some schools have also installed cameras and biometric scanners in buildings and use data harvesting software to monitor children’s devices and social media use (Gebhart, 2020). All these measures can put children into higher contact with law enforcement and we see our surveillance state that caused our mass incarceration problem replicated in school (Annamma et al., 2014). Research has shown that teachers as early as preschool already pay more attention to the behavior of Black and Brown children (boys, especially) (Gilliam, 2016) when White and Black children have been found to display similar numbers and severity of misbehaviors (Skiba, 2014). With the use of technology, this disparity may become steeper. At this point, it is not illogical to wonder if these measures were truly implemented for student safety or simply perpetuating the colonial systems of control that were instituted at the genesis of this country.

Alternatives to Surveillance and Punishment in Schools

As alternatives to current school discipline practices, researchers have suggested restorative justice practices. With this approach, peers seek to repair any harm that may have been caused through their behavior. Rather than just punishing the behavior, it allows the child to understand what harm they have caused and how to rectify it, giving them a second chance to redeem themselves (Lodi et al., 2021). However, while some school districts have implemented such practices in their schools and have seen reductions in punitive punishment and increases in prosocial behaviors in students and in teachers, there is still research that needs to be done to establish if there is a direct correlation (Lodi et al., 2021). Restorative justice, despite its focus on building positive, community-building relationships, has its critical blind spots as well: its implementations often co-opt and misinterpret Indigenous ways of community in an effort to reproduce them within colonial states without necessarily challenging or dismantling that colonial state which, ironically, may serve to further entrench coloniality (Cunneen & Tauri, 2016).

As educators, we must recognize that it is not enough to address disproportionality and punitive punishment in schools but to also radically reimagine relationships and systems of care within the broader community that schools exist in.

Thus, transformative justice picks up where the scope of restorative justice is too small. Transformative justice addresses the underlying environmental cause of a behavioral problem which then creates the space for individual change and is explicitly based in a viewpoint that takes into account larger social systems and centers a healing-based whole-person approach rather than a punishment-based behaviorist approach. Transformative justice challenges communities to look outside of established systems of punishment and control and to take back agency in deciding how the community self-regulates relationships and interactions between members. It requires enormous community buy-in, engagement, and critical self-reflection but some research has already shown promising results within limited community environments (Morris, 2000; Balasco, 2018; Ko et al., 2022). Existing research on transformative pedagogical practice is concentrated within Canada, New Zealand and Australia so further research is needed to evaluate how to implement practices that are realistic, practical and sustainable in US primary schools.

In the meantime, other means such as improving school climate (La Salle, 2018; VanLone et al., 2019), which addresses student, teacher and parents’ sense of safety and engagement, have extensive evidence of their efficacy in schools as well as well-established guidelines for implementation and evaluation. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) also has extensive resources on alternative frameworks such as School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS) and Response to Intervention (RTI) as harm reduction measures meant to work within our existing systems. Both of these frameworks aim to redirect disciplinary objectives from punishment of unwanted behaviors to increasing teacher and staff engagement with the student to find positive behavioral supports (McKinney et al., 2010).


            As a social institution that most of our children will need to traverse, it is imperative for the future of society that we must address discipline disproportionality in schools in radically imaginative ways that break the cycle of marginalization and criminalization. Punitive discipline held over from the colonial era is doing what they were designed to do: to segregate, disempower and ultimately control colonial subjects. If we are to see the full humanity in our children, we must move past those practices and the ideology that fuels them.


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