Treating Students Like Prisoners: An Examination Of For-Profit Education Models

Mysterious injuries. Bruises. Scratches. Body-slamming. Abrasions. These may not be unusual injuries in a criminal environment like prison, but they are not experiences typical high school students complain about as part of their educational milieu.

Billed as a therapeutic day program, Paramount Academy in Reading, Pennsylvania was an alternative school for students in grades six through twelve with academic and behavioral issues. Camelot Education, the for-profit company that ran Paramount, maintained strict policies, such as prohibitions on jewelry, book bags, and water fountain and bathroom use without permission. As it still does at dozens of schools, Camelot employed “behavioral specialists” and “team leaders” — typically men charged with enforcing the school’s rules.

Over a span of six months in 2013 and 2014, parents, students, and community members at Paramount Academy complained of staff’s abusive behavior. One mother heard staff restrained students through “excessive force,” and, according to email exchanges between Camelot and the Reading School District, staff also bruised a female student’s arms. A mother of a Paramount student said she visited the school to complain and was told, “That’s just what we do.” Camelot’s written reports to Reading School District documented an incident in which a teenager was scratched and another in which a bathroom wall was damaged from “holds,” the means by which students were restrained during physical encounters.

On April 24, 2014, Ismael Seals, a behavioral specialist, entered a classroom of rowdy students and commanded them to “shut the fuck up.” According to a criminal complaint, he affirmed the next one to talk would get “body-slammed through the door.” However, receiving permission from his teacher to sharpen his pencil, 17-year-old Corey Mack rose, at which time the six-foot, four-inch-tall, 280-pound specialist pushed him repeatedly against a door and shoved the five-foot, eight-inch, 160-pound student into the hall where a school surveillance camera recorded most of the incident involving grabbing the student by his shirt and swinging him headfirst into the wall, pinning him to the ground:

“Mack later showed a string of bruises and scratches on his back to a program director at a center for children with behavioral and mental health challenges. The program director called a juvenile probation official, who contacted the police.”

And Mack isn’t the only one:

“Thirteen Camelot students have alleged in interviews or documents that they were shoved, beaten, or thrown—assaults almost always referred to as ‘slamming’—by Camelot staff members, usually for the sin of talking back in separate incidents that span 10 years and three states.”

The Florida Department of Children and Families is investigating an incident that occurred at the beginning of March at Camelot Academy in Pensacola, Fla., in which a behavioral specialist reportedly knocked a 13-year-old to the ground breaking up a fight, causing a bloody abrasion and bruising near the teenager’s eye.  Camelot reported:

“The staff member and student tripped over each other’s feet and both fell.”

Courtesy of the family via the Teacher Project and Slate

Some reading this might assume that since Camelot was a school for students with documented behavioral problems, perhaps staff were simply defending themselves against dangerous behavior. A former teacher said, though, that staff and administrators “baited kids so they could hit kids,” and most who assaulted students faced no criminal charges.

With an Education Secretary making it a mission to expand private for-profit charter schools, are these experiences indicative of what we can expect in American educational institutions of the future?

Public schools must adhere to stringent requirements ensuring students are left in the care of compassionate, licensed professional educators. Public school staff must complete mandatory training for reporting child abuse, and most states require professionals’ fingerprints be kept on file. Staff are prohibited from putting their hands on students, period. If any of the aforementioned incidents happened in public school, there would not only be public outcry; perpetrators would lose their licenses, jobs, and likely face criminal prosecution.

But what if the laws protecting students no longer applied? If schools fell under the umbrella of corporations, they run the risk of circumventing public standards, such as what prisoners in for-profit prisons undergo. Prisoners in private facilities are customers to an multi-million-dollar industry. Students shouldn’t be as well. This becomes a possibility if Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in her quest to eliminate regulations and the public school system as a whole, eliminates the very infrastructure that allows students to currently see school as the only potential place they can be free of violence and intimidation from adults.

And yet, the charter school movement is catching fire. About half a million American students attend alternative schools publicly funded but often privately managed by for-profit companies such as Camelot. Camelot’s story illustrates the risk of for-profit schools that the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos favor, putting earning potential ahead of student welfare.

As we speak, Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill are seriously considering legislation designed to gut public school funding so public education in America collapses. They want to eliminate all legitimacy our public institutions possess so those “failing” institutions can be sold off to private corporations for profit.

We must pressure these representatives to reject any and all cuts to public education funding and standards. Regulations keep people safe. School might feel like prison to students, but it shouldn’t actually resemble one.

Featured image by Eric E. Castro via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, and Medium.