Detention of a Different Kind: Police, Chicago’s Schools, and the Origins of the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Louis Mercer

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Illinois at Chicago

Primary Discipline

This historical account of the origins of the school-to-prison pipeline illustrates how the increasing presence of police officers in Chicago’s schools from the 1950s to the 1980s coincided with rising racial and ethnic tensions, a punitive turn in the philosophy of juvenile justice, and ultimately contributed to mass incarceration. This dissertation will push the narrative of the school-to-prison pipeline earlier than most sociologists and criminologist look, to when legal and social structures shifted to create mass incarceration in the United States. In 1966, in the midst of large-scale protests for better schools and desegregation, the Chicago Board of Education hired off-duty police officers to patrol the halls and several inner-ring suburbs followed suit as many in the black middle class moved out of the city. Administrators argued police could protect students and facilitate desegregation, and city officials and many parents of all races agreed. Police presence in schools rapidly increased even as whites fled the schools, and police and administrators created new justifications for providing a permanent presence of uniformed police officers in schools of Chicago. As stakeholders sought to rid schools of the perceived threats from drugs, gangs, and so-called superpredators, tactics employed by police in schools began pushing more students of color into the criminal justice system, thus making police in schools a key component of understanding mass incarceration. Using archival evidence, oral history interviews, and social research, this case study of Chicago schools provides an understanding of how the school-to-prison pipeline was built and will assist education activists and reformers looking to create more just systems of discipline in schools.
About Louis Mercer
Louis Mercer is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a former middle school and high school social studies teacher with research interests in education, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, urban studies, and modern United States history. His dissertation focuses on the causes and consequences of growing police presence in Chicago’s schools in the second half of the 20th Century. He continues his deep commitment to promoting excellence in teaching with his participation in the Teaching of History track in UIC’s History Department. Louis earned his BA in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2004 and a MA in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2012, where he studied the 1968 black student-led protests for improved education in Chicago and Milwaukee.

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