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Researcher Spotlights: Ben Fisher, Civil Society & Community Studies associate professor

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Researcher Spotlights are Q&As that shine a light on School of Human Ecology faculty members’ unique scholarship and research interests.

Dr. Ben Fisher is an associate professor of Civil Society & Community Studies. He focuses on school criminalization, which refers to how elements of the criminal legal system appear in schools, including police in schools, school discipline and schools’ use of a variety of security measures.

Much of Fisher’s research in these areas addresses racial equity, with an eye toward making schools more just and equitable places for students. He says that school criminalization is a phenomenon that disproportionately has negative effects on Black and brown students.

How did you become interested in this area of study?

The initial thing that got me thinking about doing research on young people at all was personal experience. My second job out of undergrad was as a youth advocate, so I worked with a lot of young people ages 16 to 22 who were struggling in some way or had some sort of obstacle.

We had a summer employment program, so one summer I found myself supervising a crew of young guys who would go to the city parks and mow the lawns and rake the mulch and trim the bushes — that kind of stuff. I came in to work one Monday morning and pulled up the local news and found one of my boys on the front page. He had been picked up that weekend for killing somebody over like $20 of bootlegged DVDs. It sort of rocked my world at the time as a young 20-something.

I was also taking master’s classes at the same time, so while I was having this very visceral experience, I was thinking theoretically about communities and research and structures. That’s what got me thinking that I’d really like to understand more about how young people’s contexts shape their development and their lives.

When I got into my PhD program, the faculty that I worked with were focused on schools, so that ended up being a context that I focused on. As I’ve continued to research and learn, the really smart and thoughtful people that are out there doing real world work and research around this stuff have continued to refine the way I think and make me take new angles in my work.

What’s your motivation for doing this type of work, and how does it impact human well-being?

At its core, I think public education can and should be a transformative structure that levels the playing field for young folks and rights some of our historic wrongs that have led to inequality in a variety of areas, but too often it’s not. The use of harsh discipline that removes kids from school disproportionately affects students of color. The same students are also most likely to encounter invasive surveillance, controlling school environments, and experience the negative impacts of policing in schools. So, I’m trying to point to these school-related policies and practices that maintain inequality and hopefully find alternative ways of doing things that promote equity and justice.

Where do you see an opportunity to shift a conversation?

Mostly when folks ask about police in schools, they’re asking: “Do they work?” I’ve gotten pretty used to saying no. Research is pointing to the need for radically reimagining how we do things. I think it’s converging a lot with the abolitionist approach to criminal justice, and that is something that, as far as I can tell, the mainstream media isn’t equipped to talk about.

The other thing I try to talk about is that the problem with school shootings is not a problem with schools. The problem is with guns. In fact, the things we’re doing to schools to try to prevent gun violence often harm students. So, I think there’s an opportunity to shift the conversation by focusing on efforts to reduce gun access and use, rather than trying to turn schools into fortresses just so we can keep our guns.

What has surprised you about working in your field?

People are kind! I think researchers get this reputation for being aloof and dismissive of people, but the folks doing work in my area want nothing more than to see their work have an impact on the world, and are always willing to support their peers to make it happen. I’m trying my best to pay that kindness and generosity forward.

Are there any common misconceptions about your work?

I think a lot of folks think that my work is about how to make schools safer places. Of course, I want schools to be safer places, but the sort of safety that I’m thinking about is not how we stop school shootings and issues like that. The safety that I’m interested in is more like, how do we make schools more just and equitable places? As a human, I’m very interested in stopping violence and stopping people from getting killed in schools, but as a researcher, that’s not really what I do.

What do you see as the most critical question currently facing your field?

How do we create schools that allow all students to thrive? There is so much evidence that students who don’t fit the norm are marginalized in schools in a variety of ways. I’m thinking of Black students, students with disabilities, LGBTQ students and students who hold various other identities that schools do not serve properly. We need to figure out how to create a school system that values all students and gives them the opportunity to thrive.

What else should the Human Ecology community know about you?

I’m still a work in progress, so if this interview is still living somewhere on the internet in a few years, I hope you’ll find that I’ve continued to grow and learn.