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Why School Securitization Fails. Lessons from Morrill and Musheno’s Navigating Conflict

Navigating Conflict describes how pupils are able to address conflicts on their own, and how school securitization policies undermine these efforts.
Reviewed: Calvin Morrill and Michael Musheno, 2018, Navigating Conflict. How Youth Handle Trouble in a High-Poverty School, Chicago, Chicago University Press

“Every day when I walk into the campus, I am greeted by uneasy stares and nervous shouting reminding me to make sure I do not have keys or a belt or anything that may alert the metal detector,” a high-school student declared before the New York City Council Budget and Oversight Hearings in March of 2019 (Make the Road New York 2019). She spoke as part of Make the Road New York, an organization advocating for an end to ineffective punitive policies in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline (Urban Youth Collaborative and Center for Popular Democracy 2017). The students who testified wore T‑shirts with a crisp slogan, “Counselors, not Cops.”

Reversing securitization policies in schools requires both countering the belief that poor, multiracial schools need heavy-handed measures of control, and an understanding of the tools that pupils may have to manage conflict themselves. Morrill and Musheno’s 2018 book, Navigating Conflict. How Youth Handle Trouble in a High-Poverty School, based on 16 years of ethnographic research, should emerge as an essential text for achieving both objectives. Navigating Conflict provides two intertwined analyses. It first expounds a theory of how youth can reduce conflict when there is free movement through space and sociocultural divides, supported by high levels of trust between staff and students. This is a bold argument given that most research and policies view young people almost exclusively as the source of conflict, and not as agents who can defuse it. The second analysis shows how policies that securitize schools, through the regimentation of space, surveillance, and punitive measures, destroy students’ capacity for managing trouble and can lead to higher levels of conflict on campus. This book contributes critical insights to the burgeoning scholarship on ending the school-to-prison pipeline and establishing restorative and transformative justice approaches for addressing school safety.

The first part of the book argues that if youths can move freely in space (“anchored fluidity”), and there are high levels of trust on campus, students will gain capacity to address conflicts on their own or with recourse to school staff and authorities. According to prevailing notions, New West High School (NWHS), the pseudonym for the high-poverty multiracial school in Arizona, which is the book’s case study, should be rife with violence. And yet, during the first period of the authors’ fieldwork (1997 to 2000), it was among the safest and best-performing in its district. The authors find that the harmony on campus sprung from a mechanism that students call hangin’ out and movin’ around, and which the authors label “anchored fluidity.”

Anchored fluidity works to manage conflict because it allows pupils to move between “frontstage” and “backstage” interactions. Frontstage interactions happen when students are observed by peers and staff, whereby they are pressured to follow social roles, and also garner respect and credibility in the face of threats to their masculinity/femininity, dignity, or sense of vulnerability. Backstage relations occur when students are under less scrutiny and are thus free of the need to uphold a social reputation or pre‑established roles. Conflicts among adolescents in schools tend to begin in the high stakes of frontstage scenarios, but, through the use of backstage interactions, young people can diffuse problems by using peer networks or by asking teachers and staff for help.

Morrill and Musheno have amassed a commendable volume of qualitative evidence through which they infer how anchored fluidity works: their in‑depth ethnographic study (1997–2013) is complemented by interviews, written accounts and photographs shot by students, in addition to 130 sociospatial maps drawn by pupils. The authors use their rich data to show backstage techniques used by students to manage trouble. One such technique is “working it out,” where youths seek intermediary peacemakers to deal with conflict. Alternatively, they may “chill” the problem, which is to ignore, freeze or diffuse the sources of tension. Students also have the option to communicate—to security guards, teachers, or other staff—issues they or a peer face before it has swelled into more serious conflict. Pupils may also engage more active non-physical tactics. They can “go undercover” and spread malicious gossip, they may attempt to ostracize their counterparts, or they may continue an escalation of conflict only to back down at the last moment and avoid fighting. Outright physical violence is a last resort.

Through archival research into 100 years of NWHS history, Morrill and Musheno argue that the school has long been a site of multicultural inclusion. NWHS was an integrated school during the era of segregation, and hosted clubs and activities celebrating the Hispanic, Mexican, and African-American heritage of its students. This history leads many teachers to view building trust with students and pride in the multiracial makeup of the school as essential to their work. Committed teachers not only advise student clubs, but also provide “sanctuary classrooms” where students can spend time outside of the frontstage of campus during breaks and after class, and teachers and students can socialize and build trust. Committed teachers are key actors in providing the material and institutional means for anchored fluidity.

The second part of Navigating Conflict recounts how, between 1999 and 2005, NWHS adopted school securitization policies that aligned with the national “safe schools” movement. This movement, which emerged in the late 1980s, stressed disciplinary measures. Federal funds allowed schools to adopt new policies to control youth through the transformation of school facilities and increased penalties for rule-breaking. Some of the major changes NWHS adopted in this period were: (1) a remaking of space—lockers and trees were stripped, hallways lit brightly, and the campus was fenced off entirely–to prevent students from leaving during lunch; (2) cameras were placed throughout the campus; (3) students were heavily penalized for not being in designated areas or for arriving late to class; (4) teachers called the police much more often for disciplinary issues; and (5) classroom sanctuaries were shut down.

These changes eroded anchored fluidity. In a 2001 interview, a student recalled: “During lunch, you can’t listen on the radio. They took away the basketball court. All you can do is sit there. You can’t have no fun at lunch” (p. 189). In a mapping exercise, a student drew the school as a prison, complete with barbed wire around the perimeter. Confined to either the cafeteria or the quad during lunch, students could “just stare at each other in the lunchroom” (p. 189). “Safe school” policies forced students into regimented spaces. During this time, NWHS suffered from increased student conflicts on campus—an ironic result given that the policies were adopted under the guise of making the school safer—and students reported feelings of alienation and hardened ethnic and racial identities.

The “safe schools” policy mobilized the racialized discourse of gang violence as justification to securitize NWHS. African-American and Latinx students were construed as vectors connecting dangers from the street into the school. The authors connect the specific decisions of the school administration with models of neoliberal governance that led to “safe schools” policies nationwide: disinvestment of public services and an increased use of police interference in minoritized communities. The conceptual link between students of color and insecurity is also manifest as disproportionate heavy-handedness and institutionalized discrimination: the researchers show that Latinx and African-American students made up a much higher proportion of suspension cases than their relative number in the student body. Students of color, especially male, also expressed the fact that uneven forms of surveillance were cast over them.

The comparison of the school once it became securitized in the 2000s demonstrates one of the critical insights of the study: students can be agents of conflict mollification, but they require institutional conditions of fluidity and trust. The correlate of this finding is that the securitization of schools perturbs pupils’ access to important resources. These insights are especially meaningful because the book is substantially weaker when discussing the institutional bases of anchored fluidity. The authors argue that it is made possible by the exceptional commitment of a diverse group of teachers, and a plethora of extracurricular clubs. While this is plausible, the study not only lacks a comparison with other schools, it also does not consider alternative explanations including the institutional context that made it possible for teachers to have autonomy, or the institutional policies that support this intervention. This is not a minor flaw. Without these insights, it is not possible to rule out other factors that might inform the findings. And without understanding the structural context for anchored fluidity, it is not possible for schools to reproduce this model.

Another shortcoming refers to the link between “safe schools” policies and how they spread from the national level into this particular case. The nuanced and detailed account of youths dealing with trouble are met with meager details about the process of adopting the hardened security policies that so affected them. One suspects that, had the authors addressed some foundational public-policy concerns more head on—such as agenda setting, policy dissemination, framing, coalition building—they would have produced a book that could more fruitfully explain how NWHS adopted institutionalized racist policies of regimented space.

This flaw is connected to another inadequacy: the authors’ limited theorizing about the relationship between physical space, sociocultural space, and social conflict. Rather, it is left to the reader to picture how this study’s findings can inform research on workplaces, institutions, and urban space itself. The authors could have built from Navigating Conflict a rung from which to elevate their insights into a productive conversation about the control of space and its intended and unintended consequences.

Another key problem in the text is that there is not enough attention to race. While Morrill and Musheno acknowledge the importance of race, they do not engage carefully enough with the critical literature on race and schooling (Darder 1991; Lason-Billings and Tate 2010). For example, engaging with Sojoyner (2016), and others’ work about educational enclosures (Schnyder 2010; Wun 2016), which connects the heavy-handedness of school policies towards students of color with a long history of race-based enclosure in the US, would have forced the authors to situate their study in a longer historical trend, and place it beyond the immediacy of NWHS.

Despite these faults, Navigating Conflict provides a clear analysis of the pernicious outcomes of securitizing schools. It contributes to addressing the school-to-prison pipeline crisis that is affecting schools across the nation (Bahena et al. 2012; Meiners 2016; Simon 2007), as called for by organizations such as Make the Road New York (Make the Road New York 2017). The book offers insights into a broader scholarship on alternative practices for addressing school safety including the restorative- and transformative-justice approaches (González 2012; Hopkins 2004; Winn 2018). One hopes that, in addition to an expanded readership, Navigating Conflict is emulated in its meticulosity of research and that its theories and concepts are taken up, refined, and elaborated upon by other scholars, and especially by activists who are fighting against the inequities of securitized schools.


  • Bahena, Sofía; Cooc, North; Currie-Rubin, Rachel; Kuttner, Paul; and Ng, Monica (eds.). 2012. Disrupting the School-To-Prison-Pipeline, Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard Educational Review.
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  • Make the Road New York. 2019. Participation in New York City Council Budget and Oversight Hearings on the Fiscal Year 2020 Preliminary Budget. Committee on Education, 20 March.
  • Meiners, Erica. 2016. For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Morrill, Calvin and Musheno, Michael. 2018. Navigating Conflict. How Youth Handle Trouble in a High-Poverty School, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Simon, Jonathan. 2007. Governing Through Crime. How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sojoyner, Damien. 2016. First Strike. Educational Enclosures in Black Los Angeles, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Urban Youth Collaborative and Center for Popular Democracy. 2017. The $746 Million-a-Year School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Ineffective, Discriminatory, and Costly Process of Criminalizing New York City Students, New York: Urban Youth Collaborative and The Center for Popular Democracy.
  • Schnyder, Damien. 2010. “Enclosures abound: Black cultural autonomy, prison regime and public education, Race Ethnicity and Education”, Race, Ethnicity and Education, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 349–365.
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  • Wun, Connie. 2015. “Against Captivity: Black Girls and School Discipline Policies in the Afterlife of Slavery”, Educational Policy, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 171–196.

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To cite this article:

Andrés Besserer Rayas, “Why School Securitization Fails. Lessons from Morrill and Musheno’s Navigating Conflict”, Metropolitics, 8 October 2019. URL :

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