Date of Award

Spring 2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Sociology & Criminal Justice

Committee Director

Randy Myers

Committee Member

Vanessa Panfil

Committee Member

Judah Schept


As school districts across the US attempt to reduce their reliance on exclusionary punishment—and declining suspension and expulsion rates are heralded as signs of success—understanding the complexities of education and carcerality remains an urgent matter. Through a critical content analysis of a number of sources, including existing historical and ethnographic research, code of conduct handbooks, school websites, news articles, and data reports, this dissertation foregrounds an institution that is framed as an “alternative” to exclusionary punishment, yet is motivated by the same carceral logics that have long-haunted the school’s practice of managing students.

Chapter I introduces relevant literature on disciplinary alternative education, fleshes out major theoretical concepts, and locates the critique of the disciplinary alternative school within the broader projects of reform and carceral state expansion. Chapter II traces the history of the alternative school, situating it as a legacy of the state’s disparate treatment of “problematic” youth during the Progressive era of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This chapter concludes that the alternative school has firm roots in the racialized notions of pathology and rehabilitation that motivated the child-saving and progressive alternative education movements. Chapter III demonstrates how the alternative school carries on the state’s tradition of pathologizing predominantly poor families of color but through distinctly neoliberal channels, as Progressive era assumptions take new forms under the influence of responsibilization and a “new paternalism.” Chapter IV undertakes a specific case study of Texas Disciplinary Alternative Education programs, illustrating how these schools prepare their students for futures of continued social and economic marginality within a neoliberal carceral state. Chapter V discusses how we can dismantle the carceral state and its adaptations, like the disciplinary alternative school, through the utopian imagination and abolition democracy. In its entirety, the dissertation uses the disciplinary alternative school as a heuristic model for recognizing and understanding the carceral state’s ability to evolve and thrive through progressive reform efforts. Foregrounding the experiences of exclusion, surveillance, and structural disadvantage that are often obscured by reformist language is necessary if we wish to raze a carceral state that continues to persist in important ways.