Safeguarding All Children in Our Unequal Cities

Professor Carla SheddIn September, an 18-year-old student who felt bullied stabbed two fellow students in his Bronx high school, killing one. It was the first fatal attack in a New York City public school classroom in 20 years.
The school, notably, some critics say, did not have metal detectors. But would that type of security measure have prevented the crime? Or would the presence of metal detectors have had a negative impact on the school’s environment, adding to the sense of distrust and danger that many students experienced?
Those are the sorts of questions that Professor Carla Shedd (Urban Education/Sociology), who joined the Graduate Center this fall, seeks to answer in her research. Two years ago, she published Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice (Russell Sage Foundation, 2015), a pioneering examination of how Chicago’s youth navigate the city’s stratified educational and housing landscapes, assess the opportunities for mobility, and reconcile early encounters with the law. Drawn from city-wide survey data from more than 18,000 schools, and from in-depth interviews of 40 students from four public schools, the book won awards and honors from the American Sociological Association and the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

In 2007, Shedd became an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Columbia University, and turned her attention to studying inequality in New York City. More recently, she has focused her work on the juvenile justice system, and on how the courts relate to other institutions.
“After studying neighborhoods and schools that feel like prisons, I decided that the next step would be seeing what happens when school-based offenses show up in the courtroom,” she said. “People are interested in the school-to-prison pipeline, and there’s attention on the end stage: mass incarceration. But how did we get there?”
Shedd understands the urge to put metal detectors in schools after a violent incident, but she cautions against such policy changes after what, she points out, is a relatively rare event. Furthermore, there may be other, and better, ways of preventing violence.
“It’s important to think about how school climates are experienced by the kids who are supposed to be served by them,” she said. “Does the lack of a metal detector make them feel unprotected? Or does it create a feeling of trust?”
To understand inequality, we have to start by examining the institutions that can either perpetuate it or lessen its effects, Shedd said. “Schools should be a positive frontier for change. How do we shore up that space? And what happens when we fail to do that, and young people end up in the criminal justice system?”
Schools, like all other institutions, send powerful messages through funding, Shedd notes. When schools spend far more money on police officers and metal detectors than they do on counselors and mentoring programs, they are making their priorities clear.
Shedd is currently at work on her second book, which she hopes will not only increase our understanding of New York’s justice system, but will inform policy moving forward. “We need to understand how institutions like schools and courts are shaping young people’s lives,” she said. “New York City is an amazing urban laboratory for this work ¾ and hopefully we move toward changing systems so they better serve young people, and not just punish them.”

Photo by Rachel Ramirez

Submitted on: NOV 10, 2017

Category: Diversity | Faculty | General GC News | Sociology | Urban Education