Calls for stricter gun control and mental health screening often come on the heels of school shootings, which have raised national concerns about school safety. The implication is that people with psychiatric disabilities are dangerous or threatening, and that preventing them from owning guns will make schools safer. This paper challenges this assumption by considering dominant discourses about school safety and mental health alongside the increasing militarization of U.S. schools. Advocating reducing violence by identifying individuals with psychiatric disabilities—or those labelled with mental illnesses presumed to render them dangerous—erases the profound state violence schools engender in the service of empire while perpetuating ableist assumptions about people with psychiatric disabilities. In the age of empire and endless imperialist war, we need to challenge prevailing conceptions of both school safety and mental health.
In June 2016, Congressional Democrats held a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives in an alleged effort to curb gun violence. While the move was largely commended by corporate media—even celebrated as a "civics lesson" for American schoolchildren in The Atlantic—,the legislation being fought for would have expanded the use of a notoriously inaccurate, racist and anti-Muslim "anti-terror" watchlist and done little to reduce violence (Richmond, 2016). This continues a long history of "gun control" policy in the U.S. that disproportionately incarcerates Black, Brown, and mentally disabled Americans by writing them as threats to safety and national security (Crenshaw, Ocen, & Nanda, 2015; Jilani, 2016; Coaston, 2016). 1 Responses to school shootings that uphold "gun control" as the panacea for reducing gun-related deaths subscribe to a liberal, non-violence framework that elides state violence and the structural conditions that engender individual acts of violence. 2
Calls for stricter gun control and mental health screening often come on the heels of school shootings, or they are justified by invoking national memories of these events. Such legislation is put forth as a necessary means of protecting the nation's (white) children through policies that criminalize people of color and psychiatrically disabled people, neglect state-sanctioned racist, gendered, and imperialist violence in schools, and reinforce ableist myths about who is "dangerous" (Crenshaw, Ocen, & Nanda, 2015). This paper asks how myopic conceptions of school safety circumscribe the imagined/imaginable solutions for fostering safe schools. I argue that a narrow notion of school safety derives from a narrow, ableist conception of school violence that pathologizes individuals who act violently and conceals state violence—particularly as it pertains to the production of empire—that manifests in schools. The very development and production of guns capable of such mass destruction—which liberal legislation seeks to restrict from the hands of Black, Brown, and disabled peoples—is a product of the endless war economy created by imperialist wars requisite for capital. 3
Numerous widely publicized school shootings in the U.S. have fueled national concerns around school safety. In 2013, President Obama and Vice President Biden launched "Now Is the Time," which, according to the U.S. Department of Education's website, is "a comprehensive plan to make our schools safer, reduce gun violence by keeping guns out of dangerous hands, and increase mental-health services" (White House, 2013, para. 1). The supposition that improving mental health services and restricting people labelled mentally ill from gun ownership should be the foremost priority for reducing gun violence in schools has become platitudinous. This paper aims to trouble this oversimplified response by positioning dominant discourses around school safety and mental health alongside the increasing militarization of U.S. schools—evidenced in US Department of Defense funded charter schools, increased police presence in schools, the tying of federal funding to military recruitment access, the proliferation of ROTC programs on college campuses, and pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist curriculum—to highlight the inadequacy of conceptions of school violence that fail to account for state violence. Narrow conceptions of school safety that elide state violence and pathologize individual students drive scant policies largely ineffectual in reducing the violence of schooling.
Given the narrowly medical and individualized approaches to mental health in the U.S. broadly, mental health services implemented in schools rarely challenge systems of white supremacist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, and colonial violence that undeniably affect students' mental health. The preoccupation with protecting schools from individual "crazed" shooters— framed as the gravest threat to school safety— belies the fact that, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mass shootings make up less than 2 percent of all firearm-related deaths (Ellison, 2016). School safety initiatives that advocate reducing violence in schools by identifying individuals with psychiatric disabilities—presumed to render them dangerous within the public imaginary— neglect the profound structural violence schools perpetuate in the service of empire. The Department of Defense's 1033 Excess Property Program, for instance, has transferred surplus military equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to twenty-six school districts nationwide and enhanced the militarization of school cops and college campuses (Peak, 2015; Davis, 2017). Racist and imperialist violence is also evidenced in practices like sending military recruits into schools with predominantly poor, Black and Brown students, who are in turn deployed in wars that have profoundly disabling mental health effects. 4 In the age of empire and endless war, we need to challenge prevailing conceptions of school safety that abet psychiatric ableism while doing little to curb school violence. To catalyze more radical and liberatory demands for fostering safe schools, conceptions of school safety ought to encompass state violence that manifests in schools and shapes the individuals therein.
The dominant discourse around school safety is premised on the notion that mental illness exists in a vacuum. Mental illness becomes the explanation for violence waged in schools, masking the fact that the state is a primary instigator of school violence. Consequently, policy proposals centered on better gun control, more cops in schools, and the provision of mental health services prioritize identifying mentally disabled people and restricting them from accessing weapons. This narrative results in the pathologization of individual students and circumscribes conceptions of school safety, obscuring the colossal violence that U.S. empire—which needs continuous military fodder and invariably deploys military practices against oppressed peoples within U.S. borders—poses to both students' safety and mental health. 5 This paper specifically examines how the U.S.'s imperial endeavors and quest for global hegemony manifest in U.S. schools through a Critical Disability Studies lens. 6
While writing this article, I received an email from a publishing company with the subject line: "How is depression linked to school gun carrying?" (Juan & Hemenway, 2017). The article title attests to a broader discourse around school safety that suggests violence can be reduced in schools by identifying and controlling people with psychiatric disabilities. This discourse sanctions the expansion of repressive and violent state forces in schools. According to the Department of Education's 2016 Indicators of School Crime and Safety report, between 1999 and 2015, "the percentage of students who reported locked entrance or exit doors during the day increased […] from 38 to 78 percent," while students reporting "the presence of security guards or assigned police officers [increased] from 54 to 70 percent. From 2001 to 2015, the percentage of students who reported the use of security cameras at their schools increased from 39 to 83 percent (Indicator 21)" (p. ix). This past spring, at Colgate University in New York, a campus lockdown and police response were triggered by reports of an "active shooter," who turned out to be a Black student carrying a glue gun for a school project (Svrluga, 2017). This example speaks to how prevailing responses to school safety can actually heighten racist state violence in schools. I was again struck by the inadequacy of alleged school safety initiatives while sitting in a teacher training session during which we were advised on how to "spot" distressed students—framed as potential instigators of violence—at a university deeply complicit in U.S. empire. 7 These moments exemplify how narrow framings of school safety—which read 'school violence' as 'school shootings' and presuppose mental health counselors and cops as the solution—ignore (and thereby enable to persist) a racist and ableist empire that instigates profound state violence within and beyond school walls. In the context of U.S. empire, schools function as a tool of the state through which predominantly (disabled) poor, Black and Brown students are targeted and recruited to serve a racist, imperialist system of global capital that produces mass disablement both nationally and globally (Russell, 2001; Althusser, 1970). 8
In what follows, I first briefly discuss Althusser's (1970) theorization of the role of schools in reproducing dominant ideologies to uphold the status quo. The subsequent section recounts the narrow conception of school safety and/as mental health projects propagated through educational policies and initiatives. From there, I discuss the militarization of schools, a central example of how technologies and practices developed to sustain U.S. empire externally are in turn used to police (disabled) people of color within the U.S. (e.g. Chowdhury, 2009). I ultimately argue that school safety ought to be reconceptualized to account for the disabling effects of state violence precipitated by schools in the service of empire.
Schools as Ideological State Apparatuses
As scholars and activists have long argued, institutionalized education plays a central role in reproducing an inherently unequal social and economic structure. Emphasizing the importance of ideological hegemony for reproducing the capitalist mode of production, Althusser (1970) identified schools as the primary Ideological State Apparatus—or a central means through which the ruling class disseminates dominant ideologies—of late capitalist social formations. As capitalism increasingly relies on endless imperialist expansion and war to sustain itself, the U.S. state increasingly turns to schools to fuel imperialist projects through programs 9 and policies 10 —discussed further below—that normalize military presence in schools. The militarization of schools goes hand-in-hand with schools' role in reproducing and sustaining empire. Writing on the relationship between education and imperialism, Tikly (2004) notes that "modern forms of education with their roots in western cultures and civilizations have been deeply implicated in and provide a common thread between European imperialism and colonialism and the new imperialism" and that "formal educational institutions have provided a key disciplinary institution within the context of classical and settler colonialism" (p. 188). Within this context, and understanding that "education provides a key site for discursive struggle over versions of social reality," deconstructing dominant ideologies around safety and psychiatric disability in the contemporary landscape of education can help more accurately reframe the conversation to focus on the violence of U.S. imperialism and the threat it poses to students' safety and psychiatric health (Tikly, 2004, p. 178).
U.S. Investments in School Safety and/as Mental Health Projects
The title of a 2014 press release on the U.S. Department of Education's website triumphantly proclaims Department of Education invests more than $70 million to improve school climate and keep students safe (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). The expanding surveillance and militarization of schools runs counter to this alleged concern for students' safety and mental health. So-called safety initiatives often take the form of heightened police presence in schools and the criminalization of students at increasingly younger ages. As reported in Color Lines, "per 1,000 students, New York City has 5.28 security personnel, but just 2.9 counselors […]. Chicago has 4.21 officers to 2.18 counselors […]. And Miami has 6.32 officers to 2.28 counselors" (Rankin, 2016). These numbers attest to state violence manifest in schools that is concealed by a school safety discourse which frames violence as a problem of individual "broken" psyches and ignores state violence.
The notion of mental health commonly invoked as a primary concern around school safety itself warrants scrutiny. While expanding mental health supports in schools is undoubtedly necessary, these invocations typically frame mental disability as an individual disorder that exists in a vacuum from social, economic, and historical forces, which has implications for the types of mental health support provided. 11 Within this myopic framing, "crazy" individuals are positioned as threats to safety. Historicizing this narrative, Russell (2002) reminds us that "U.S. eugenics policy focused on the incarcerated population" such that "physical characteristics were linked to criminal behavior and disabled people were said to be predisposed to commit crimes" (p. 21). This narrative elides how social, historical, and economic contexts shape people, produce psychiatric disablement, and render psychiatric difference disabling. In other words, the dominant discourse around mental health fails to account for how systemic violence materializes corporeally. This, in turn, circumscribes the conceivable solutions, proposing "fixing" individuals instead of dismantling the oppressive systems that shape them. Describing how the construct of disability has shaped the history and experiences of teachers in the U.S. and the narration of teachers as incompetent, dysfunctional, and psychiatrically unstable, Rousmaniere (2013) comments that "there is a notable bias to the reporting of these dangers, with more emphasis on individual incidents of school violence and teachers' mental state than on the chronic institutional perils of cancer-causing asbestos and other safety hazards in in school buildings" (p. 101). Further, and given that many mass shooters are motivated by racist, xenophobic, and misogynist ideology, attributing these occurrences to the actions of "crazy" individuals simultaneously re-entrenches ableism while leaving unchecked the structural basis of oppressive ideologies driving such violence (Norton, 2017; Valenti, 2014). Racist and misogynist white male shooters are often humanized in media through ableist rhetoric that further buttresses conceptions of psychiatrically disabled people as inherently violent and dangerous and trivializes racism and patriarchy as issues only for fringe "crazy" people. For instance, positioning as crazy people like Elliot Rodger—who shot and killed six people on UC Santa Barbara's campus in 2014—perpetuates a lie that psychiatrically disabled people are uniquely dangerous and fails to see these actors as products and agents of a violent and exploitative state. Rodger, for his part, was a racist and a misogynist. Proposals to ban him accessing guns do nothing to address the conditions that made him this way, and leave white supremacy and patriarchy unchecked by deflecting attention from the root issues. Upholding gun control as a cure-all for school violence also ignores the targeting of disabled and people of color by cops and judges who enforce such legislation, which should be predictable given this state's founding and history.
In their analysis of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Mental Health Improvements for National Development (MIND) Project, Titchkosky and Albrecht (2015) outline how dominant global institutions like the WHO perpetuate colonial logics by linking mental health to economic productivity. As they explain, the WHO explicitly professes to speak on behalf of corporations, which have identified mental illness as a major concern because the "epidemic" is an economic burden that yields major losses in productivity. The authors argue that the proposed solution, the WHO's MIND project, "is one way empire now invades consciousness making for a version of people as fit, productive citizens able to actualize a nation's development trajectory as imagined by Western powers" (p. 72). Their analysis suggests that public health initiatives launched by the U.S. stem from the needs of capital and U.S. global hegemony as opposed to any ostensible humanitarian concern. International mental health programs become a means by which the U.S. state can uphold its paternalistic professed moral beneficence to expand the global system of capital, while eliding its central role in historical and contemporary imperialist and settler colonial projects. Their observation that "how people are encouraged to identify who is disordered and who is not is directly related to powerful ways in which the world and its people are already known" offers insight into the perfunctory mental health agenda proposed to resolve narrowly framed threats to school safety (p. 81).
While Trump was understandably lambasted for proposing to end "gun-free school zones," this shouldn't be reason to romanticize past state-led efforts to address school safety. Written in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, President Obama's 2013 "Now is the Time" plan offers insight into the dominant discourse around school safety. 12 The plan proposes to reduce gun violence and enhance safety by providing greater access to mental health services and increasing police presence in schools, and by "[keeping] guns out of dangerous hands" (White House, 2013, p. 2). The report recommends providing incentives for schools to hire more police officers—euphemistically referred to as resource officers. 13 A national policy proposal to expand the police state in the wake of a deadly school shooting exemplifies what Klein (2007) has named disaster capitalism, in which the capitalist state exploits a context of national grief to implement policies that would likely otherwise be resisted or rejected. 14 The assumption that increasing the number of police in schools actually enhances students' safety is belied by frequent reports of police physically and sexually violating students in schools. For example, in 2017 Georgia high school students filed a lawsuit against police in Sylvester, Georgia for groping roughly 900 students during a four-hour lockdown drug search which was conducted without a warrant and yielded nothing (Grenoble, 2017). Contrary to the public safety rhetoric, police—as an institution—serve and protect the U.S. state by surveilling and containing oppressed peoples.
Beyond calling for more cops in the streets and in schools, the plan argues that doctors and mental health workers play a pivotal role in reducing violence, specifically by identifying and reporting potentially violent people to law enforcement authorities. The role of mental health workers is framed not as supporting students coping with the psychological effects of state violence, but as surveilling for potentially violent psychiatrically disabled people and reporting them to police. The end goal, again, is the strengthening of the police—a leading repressive state apparatus (Althusser, 1970). Under the heading "Put up to 1,000 more school resource officers and counselors in schools and help schools invest in safety," the proposal suggests that "putting school resource officers and mental health professionals in schools can help prevent school crime and student-on-student violence" (White House, 2013, p. 11). The plan repeatedly emphasizes keeping guns out of the "wrong hands," stating that "we should never ask doctors and other health care providers to turn a blind eye [sic] to the risks posed by guns in the wrong hands" (p. 9) and, further, that we ought to "help law enforcement avoid returning guns to the wrong hands" (p. 6). Throughout the report, the "wrong hands" functions as code for people with psychiatric disabilities, the implication being that they compromise school safety and that these students, specifically, need to be prohibited from handling weapons. Notably, the concern is not that psychiatrically disabled students are more inclined to harm themselves—a statistically far more probable danger—but that students with psychiatric disabilities threaten the safety of others and need to be identified and controlled. This fits Margaret Price's (2011) observation, regarding rhetorics of disability in academic life, that "recently, this destructive force [of insanity] is often represented as a violent student or faculty member who is assumed to have gone mentally haywire, like a bad cog in an otherwise smoothly operating machine" (p. 7). As Price notes, "an attempt is made to construct academe as a "safe zone" that must be protected from the violent incursions of madness" (p. 22). Psychiatrically disabled students are positioned as the instigators of violence through a narrative that frames "student-on-student violence" as the primary threat to safe schools, reinforcing the myth that psychiatrically disabled people are likely instigators, as opposed to victims, of violence, and legitimizing the heightened policing and surveillance of schools in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods. The language of "student-on-student violence" functions similarly to the language of "Black-on-Black crime" insofar as both divert attention away from state violence—in the form of white supremacy, imperialism, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, settler colonialism, and ableism—that structurally undermines health and safety and produces uneven material conditions that render some more likely to be subjected to violence.
The Obama administration's proposal upholds the myth that police enhance safety, ignoring the fact that hundreds of people—disproportionately disabled people of color and oftentimes unarmed—are murdered by police every year in the U.S. 15 Much like the WHO has identified mental illness as a global epidemic that threatens capitalist accumulation and hampers the spread of empire, a parallel narrative frames mental illness as a major threat to school safety that can be treated with more mental health professionals and cops. This narrative obscures schools' function as sites for reproducing dominant ideologies—which pose colossal systemic threats to students' safety and mental health. Commenting on normalized police violence against poor, disabled women of color, Erevelles and Minear (2010) describe how "socially sanctioned fears of the mentally ill and our social devaluation of disabled […] bodies of color justify the volley of shots fired almost instinctively to protect the public from the deviant, the dangerous, and the disposable" (p. 128). In the context of schooling, it is disabled students of color who are disproportionately subjected to disciplinary measures (Rankin, 2016). Black and Latinx students made up 99% of students handcuffed by NYPD "school safety agents" in public schools in 2016 in so-called "child in crisis" incidents, in which a student in emotional distress is removed from their school and taken to a hospital for psychological evaluation (Burke & Chapman, 2017). 16
Ableism within school safety discourses is not new and plays into a pervasive perception of people with psychiatric disabilities as dangerous threats to public safety. A 1998 report issued by the Department of Education entitled Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, with the keywords crime prevention, problem children, school safety, and risk management, intimates that individual "troubled children" are an acute threat to school safety. The report specifically names social withdrawal, depression, and a lack of confidence as potential warning signs of troubled children who compromise school safety.
Reports such as these—which pathologize individual students who allegedly threaten school safety in an ahistorical, depoliticized vacuum—uphold a dominant narrative that effaces state violence and its corporeal manifestations. It also adheres to a racialized discourse of pathology that Taylor (2015) notes reinforces "deeply ingrained assumptions and beliefs about the undesirable, even tragic experience of mental disability" (Taylor, 2015, p. 194). This narrative fails to ask what material conditions shape individuals who act violently, or to distinguish between state violence and individual violence. In their analysis, Titchkosky and Albrecht (2015) note that the WHO narrative represents an effacement whereby the "complex economic terms and conditions of a country are erased by a simplified history, an individualized history represented through the number of people who count as disabled" (p. 76). The prevailing narrative that school safety is threatened by an alleged mental health epidemic, used to justify the increased militarization and policing of schools that disproportionately impacts poor and disabled students of color, represents a similar erasure. This individualized narrative neglects to address the state violence and threats to safety—through their complicity in imperialist projects—that schools propagate (Erevelles, 2000).
A narrow notion of school safety also fails to acknowledge that students with particular psychiatric disabilities are themselves disproportionately targets of state violence through high rates of enlistment in a violent military apparatus and through the increasing militarization and policing of schools that aims to discipline and contain "unruly" bodies (Zarembo, 2014). 17 Contrary to the dominant narrative, students with disabilities are far more likely to be the targets of violence in schools than the perpetrators (Price, 2011). According to a joint Human Rights Watch and American Civil Liberties (ACLU) report, students with disabilities account for 14% of the student population, but 19% of those subjected to corporal punishment in schools (Human Rights Watch/ACLU, 2009). The report documents the extensive use of physical discipline—often in the form of paddling—against disabled students in schools. 18 A failure to incorporate intersecting forms of state violence into dominant conceptions of school safety conceals this material reality. As Erevelles (2000) writes, "American public education has used the category of disability to support separate regular education and segregated education programs that assign students oppressively marked by race, class, and gender to lower tracks within the educational matrix that correspond to similar tracks within the social and economic order" (p. 43).
Empire at Home: U.S. School Militarization
School militarization is rightly understood as part and parcel of U.S. imperialism. As delineated by Furumoto (2005) in her analysis of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and school militarism, "the U.S. imperial project refers to global hegemonic imperialism that is characterized by the U.S. global use of military power and political domination in order to enforce the best possible conditions and outcomes for U.S. economic and political interests" (p. 201). The inextricability of school militarization and U.S. imperialism is underscored by the fact that many of the same companies profit from these concomitant projects. The international security corporation G4S, which maintains prisons, checkpoints, and the apartheid wall in Occupied Palestine and colludes with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deport undocumented peoples in the U.S., has provided guns and target practice to teachers in school districts that cannot afford private security companies (Davis, 2017). Considering the profound violence intrinsic to imperialism and attendant educational militarization, the militarization of schooling ought to be factored into conceptions of school safety and challenged and resisted through practices, policies, and pedagogies aimed at assuaging violence in schools. 19
As Furumoto explains, NCLB greatly expanded the U.S. military's access to schools and students. Under NCLB, schools receiving federal funds are required to give military recruiters the same access to students as college recruiters and employers. Section 9528 of the legislation states that "each local educational agency receiving assistance under this Act shall provide military recruiters the same access to secondary school students as is provided generally to post-secondary educational institutions or to prospective employers of those students" (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). Denying recruiters access to students' contact information can result in schools losing their funding. Explaining the direct link between school militarization and U.S. imperialism, Furumoto argues that the
"inclusion of Section 9528 in NCLB to increase military recruiters' access to students and school campuses is a part of the general strategy of the military to increase their ranks. The U.S. military needs soldiers to maintain and enforce imperialism. Targeting African American and Latinos to fight this country's wars is a well-calculated strategy to continue to grow their forces without creating the mass dissension that a draft may provoke" (p. 208).
Race and disability converge through schooling practices that position racialized bodies as deficient and deviant (Erevelles, 2000). Consequently, the targeting of students of color broadly is inextricable from an ableist logic that yields a commonsense wherein the military is a 'logical' path for disciplining students who are always already scripted as 'unruly.' Labeling students of color unruly is often achieved explicitly through disability labels—like Oppositional Defiant Disorder and emotional disturbance (ED)—that are disproportionately ascribed to Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students (Annamma, Connor, & Ferri, 2016).
Galaviz, Palafox, Meiners, and Quinn (2011) provide a case study of the militarization of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to highlight how the militarization of schooling particularly impacts poor students of color and fuels racist stereotypes to justify practices meant to render students compliant and obedient. Their analysis is based on data obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests made to CPS, personal experiences as teachers in CPS, and personal communications with students and parents. Referring to poor youth of color, the authors suggest that "for youth who are regularly presented in media as social problems rather than assets, the military schools' promise to develop youth's leadership and other worthy personal qualities may be just as valuable as promises of college funding to vulnerable young people" (p. 29). Their analysis speaks to how poor students of color are rendered "able"—or productive—through service to U.S. imperialism. Racist ideologies sanction the explicit targeting and recruitment of racially oppressed peoples. The RAND Corporation—a conservative think tank that initially served the U.S. Armed Forces and has since expanded its scope—released a 200-page report titled "Military Enlistment of Hispanic Youth: Obstacles and Opportunities" recommending recruitment of the "most qualified" tier of Hispanic youth in schools, suggesting college money and "leadership opportunities" as means of targeting and enticing these students (Asch et al., 2009, p. 28). This underscores how U.S. imperialism beyond U.S. borders rests on and reinforces white supremacy within the U.S.
The authors' discussion of the funding and placement of military-themed charter schools and Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs, which receive funding from both Chicago taxpayers and the Department of Defense, demonstrates the illusiveness of the rhetoric of choice. In Chicago, military academies receive more resources than traditional public schools, making them a more appealing option than under-resourced public schools for many parents and students, particularly those who lack the resources for private schools or the wealthy public schools that exist in predominantly white districts with high property values. The presentation of military schools as a desirable option for youth in need of discipline also elides "the reality that inequitable structures and state abandonment produce and shape this artificial crisis of scarcity—of resources, safety, and rich curriculum—within the public schools" (p. 34). The authors rightly emphasize that social imaginaries around who needs to be disciplined and 'put to work' through these types of programs are deeply classed, gendered, racialized, and sexualized. They go on to argue that the normalization of a militarized culture is "aimed at cultivating a militarized mind" and that measures like the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) are employed to assess eligibility for enlistment and used in schools for recruitment purposes (p. 36). Such measures produce a dominant logic of disability wherein an "able-mind" is one capable of carrying out the exploitative, murderous, and debilitating military incursions that sustain U.S. empire.
In addition to overt policies and practices like recruiting and enlisting students through school, Furumoto (2005) argues that U.S. empire manifests in schools through more subtle means, as in the production and dissemination of knowledge, values, and ideas that reinforce U.S. global hegemony and hinder students' capacity to critique militarism and challenge oppression. In one particularly vile example of this, the 2006 New York Regents exam asked students to describe how imperialism benefitted Africans (Einhorn, 2006). Forms of knowledge advanced by contemporary educational policies and practices largely fail to equip students with the tools to question dominant ideologies and histories and, accordingly, to challenge U.S. imperialism. As Furumoto (2005) explains:
"The relentless pace of recent U.S. military incursions into Afghanistan, Iraq, and Haiti, as well as saber rattling directed at Iran, leave many of us incredulous at the barbarity of pre-emptive military attacks and at the complete disregard for the lives and well-being of both U.S. soldiers and of the people in the countries we attack. One of the striking aspects of the imperial project is how the same processes of conquest and containment are echoed in urban schools, such as the domination and disciplining of the student mind and body, the dehumanization of students and teachers, and the use of violence and oppression to enforce and reproduce particular values and ideas" (p. 206).
Violent tactics of containment central to empire-building are in turn deployed within U.S. schools, and disproportionately used against the 'unruly' bodies of disabled students of color (Stolberg, 2015; Erevelles, 2000). The deep entanglement of U.S. empire and schooling is also evidenced by the American Federation of Teachers' international program in the Middle East, which aligns with U.S. foreign policy and helps extend and maintain U.S. power in the region, functioning as a form of "labor imperialism" (Sukarieh & Tannock, 2010).
Exceptionalizing rhetoric around Trump gets used to justify reversion to mainstream Democratic politics, like gun control and mental health screening in response to shootings. This discourse also tacitly assumes that the state should have a monopoly on violence, insofar as demands for police and prison abolition are not part of the gun control conversation, which instead promotes fear of people with mental disabilities and in practice further criminalizes people of color. The use of ableist language—which writes Trump as "crazy," "stupid," "insane," an "idiot," and so on—is similarly destructive. This mystification both normalizes the exploitation of intellectually and psychiatrically disabled people by leaving unchecked the systemic privileging of able-mindedness and fails to contextualize the broader historical conditions that made Trump's rise possible, impeding effective resistance.
At a historical moment when U.S. empire persists by waging endless wars, we need to radically rethink conceptions of—and approaches to addressing—mental health and school safety. This starts with shifting dominant understandings of violence to foreground state violence and the manifold ways U.S. empire shapes individuals who act violently, often driven by white supremacist and misogynist ideologies that undergird and legitimize the class structure of capitalism. 20 Reconceptualizing school safety in anti-ableist ways—e.g. not scapegoating by reducing school violence to an issue of uncontrolled/uncontained "mental illness"—that account for the state violence engendered by U.S. empire is a necessary aspect of this project.
Using a feminist disability studies lens, Simplican (2015) argues for an expanded conception of dependency that allows us to mobilize against violence without stigmatizing disabled people who act violently. In so doing, she notes that all too often we fail to indict the "structural forces of violence" that create conditions under which individuals act violently. She asks "whose actions and bodies […] we label as violent? And at what cost?" (p. 14). Her question challenges the parochial response of labelling individual students mentally ill, and thus potentially dangerous, in a broader context in which schools serve the ideological interests of U.S empire, and in which disabled, Black, Brown, and Native students are disproportionately funneled into segregated special education classrooms—and subsequently prisons—for being "unruly." It is the conditions of schooling in the age of empire, not individual students, that should be identified as unhealthy and unsafe. Under these conditions, students who challenge or resists schools' perpetuation of racist and imperial interests are often themselves labeled with psychiatric disabilities and punished for being "unruly" or "disruptive," attesting to the improvidence of regurgitating ableist assumptions that enable the pathologizing of resistance, particularly when waged by students of color. Providing greater mental health support in schools is imperative. But making these initiatives meaningful means challenging an approach to mental health in the U.S. that views psychiatric disability as an individual, medical problem and instead understands it as indivisible from racist and other state violence. Understanding how state violence materializes in bodies and shapes mental health implies a very different set of political and policy responses than gun control with mental health screening. Mental health projects that neglect the state violence of racist imperialism and its mental health implications are wholly insufficient.
A myopic discourse around school safety—which attributes school violence to individual "crazy" actors—advances ableist assumptions by reinforcing the association of psychiatric disability and violence that pervades the public imaginary. Not until we dismantle the structural conditions of schooling within the U.S.—particularly the deployment of schooling as a tool of imperialist expansion—will we begin to properly address either school violence or the very real mental health needs of students that derive from schooling in the age of empire.
- Acquittal of officer who killed Philando Castile sparks emotional outcry. (2017, June 16). PBS Newshour. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/acquittal-officer-killed-philando-castile-sparks-emotional-outcry/
- Althusser, L. (1970). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation. La Pensée. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm
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- California's 1967 Mulford Act, which restricted the right to publicly carry arms, was a direct response to the Black Panther Party's armed patrols of Oakland neighborhoods to prevent police violence in Black communities (Wing, 2016). While white Americans are more likely to own guns, Black Americans are far more likely to be jailed for gun ownership. This alone should give anti-racist educators pause in uncritically accepting the prevailing discourse around gun control.
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- Histories of revolutionary struggle, like the Black Panthers' tactics of armed resistance, offer a counter to this framework. Attesting to the legitimacy of resistance by whatever means necessary under violent conditions of oppression and exploitation, Ida B. Wells proclaimed that "a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home" (Carby, 1985, p. 229).
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- I am indebted to the anonymous reviewers, whose substantive feedback pushed me to clarify my arguments and provide more concrete examples of claims made throughout the paper.
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- I am not making a normative argument that war is bad because it produces disability. Disability studies and disability justice movements rightly reject the taken-for-granted devaluation of bodily variations and assumptions that disability is inherently undesirable. At the same time, as many critiques of canonical disability studies works have rightly brought to the fore, the widespread use of disablement as a practice of domination cannot be ignored in a field devoted to studying the social meaning of disability and the particular ways bodies are both constructed and produced. Disability studies scholars are more recently grappling with the necessary tension between simultaneously valuing disability (e.g. as a meaningful epistemic location) while rejecting structures of power (e.g. Empire) that produce disablement.
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- Significantly, the precarious position of disabled people within the capitalist structure—evidenced, among numerous examples, by extremely limited employment options and legal sub-minimum in the U.S.—likely impels involvement in U.S. imperial projects that both produce disablement and destroy infrastructure that supports disabled people globally. The Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, for example, employs disabled people to produce equipment for Boeing and the U.S. military, and many states' Business Enterprise Programs facilitate Blind people's employment in dining halls on military bases through large food service contracts.
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- Following Grech (2015), I view "disability as a useful optic through which to examine the dynamics of imperialism," with a particular interest in how this plays out in educational contexts in the U.S. (p. 1).
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- Among numerous other examples, the chancellor sits on the Academic Advisory Council for the Department of Homeland Security, and the university runs a highly profitable entrepreneurship program for military veterans that grew out of an initiative specifically for disabled veterans.
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- I understand imperialism as both racist and as endemic to capitalism, given its necessity for the expanded circulation and accumulation of capital as it seeks new markets, resources, and cheap labor (e.g. Harvey, 2003). In Lenin's (2015/1917) words, "imperialist wars are absolutely inevitable under such an economic system, as long as private property in the means of production exists" (p. 88)
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- The Department of Defense's Troops to Teachers program, for example, transitions military personnel into positions in public schools.
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- No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandated that military recruiters have the same access to students and their contact information as college recruiters (Furumoto, 2007).
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- A radical mental health movement—which accounts for structural forces of oppression and exploitation and their psychiatric manifestations—has gained momentum in recent years and offers a more worthwhile paradigm for mental health supports in schools (DuBrul, 2012). The Icarus Project is an example of a more liberatory paradigm for understanding and addressing mental health.
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- The plan has been removed from the White House web page under the Trump administration and is now available from the Obama White House archives.
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- "School resource officers are specially trained police officers that work in schools" (White House, 2013, p. 11).
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- Thank you to the anonymous reviewer who offered helpful feedback on this point.
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- A reviewer asked that I change the word 'murder' on the basis that all readers might not agree with this language. I left it, struck by the words of Valerie Castile after the cop who killed her son was found not guilty: "I will continue to say murder because where in this planet do you tell the truth […]?" (Acquittal of Officer, 2017).
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- The NYPD was required to publish these statistics following amendments to New York City's Student Safety Act in 2015.
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- Recent reports suggest that roughly 1 in 5 soldiers has a mental disability prior to enlistment, and that army recruits have significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder than the general population (Zarembo, 2014).
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- 15 states permit corporal punishment and another 7 do not prohibit it, and disabled (and) students of color are far more likely to be subjected to physical punishment (Turner, 2016).
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- Here I am thinking of critical pedagogies that point to the structural roots of violence and point to examples of collective resistance, as opposed to narrow educational campaigns that seek to alter individual actions while leaving unquestioned the structural conditions that occasion them.
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- Changing understandings of what constitutes violence also means emphasizing that state violence and other acts of violence that fuel oppression should not be confounded with or treated as if equivalent to justified violence—also stoked by material conditions of U.S. empire—in resistance to state violence and exploitation.
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