Criminal (mis)readings of bodies, or multimodality gone wrong


Illustration by Richie Pope, taken from New Yorker article by Douglas Star 

If “slumping, failing to look directly at the interviewer, offering ‘evasive’ responses, and showing generally ‘guarded’ behaviors” is enough to label someone guilty, then I would’ve been in trouble long ago. But the special recipe described in the article, “Why Are Educators Learning How to Interrogate Their Students?” (by Douglas Starr), doesn’t apply equally to everyone. The characteristics outlined in the article address some young people’s practices that are suddenly made hypervisible and then identified as so-called “guarded” behaviors. Such negative identification foregrounds the assumptions that undergird interpretations of these young people’s actions as suspicious or not, as worthy of labeling or not, as guilty or not.

For those of us who pursue multimodal research, and in particular those who draw on multimodal lenses for understanding the body in relation to the contexts in and through which (young) people move — wherein, how someone engages with a classroom, the park, the subway, etc. may provide additional places to look for the significance of materiality, temporality, relationships, etc. — this trend of “attending to” the body through deterministic readings of gestures and movements is deeply concerning. To notice the many ways (young) people comport themselves multimodally in response to their environments shouldn’t be confused with the trickery mentality that seems to be the driving force behind the “Reid Technique,” the name for the interrogation approach described in Starr’s article, which is used by “police officers, private-security personnel, insurance-fraud investigators, and other people for whom getting at the truth is part of the job” — and that now some school districts are beginning to adopt, according to the attorney interviewed for this article. This “technique” positions young people as adversaries.

From the article:

“None of the videos [used in the training] portrayed young people being questioned for typical school misbehavior, nor did any of the Reid teaching materials refer to “students” or “kids.” They were always “suspects” or “subjects.”

I am left to ponder the following:

  • The power of a single person — in this case, John Reid, “a former Chicago street cop who had become a consultant and polygraph expert” ( — to dramatically shift the normative understandings about people, relationships, modes of interacting, simply by virtue of being given a platform to do so. (especially where there is little incentive to evolve away from an idea once it gains enough traction, even when an idea may do unintended harm)
  • Telling and telling and telling evidence-based tales of how children’s and youths’ actions have been increasingly criminalized doesn’t seem to be working to stem the tide of shifting the underlying assumptions on which split-decision actions and responses are made (by teachers, administrators, law enforcements) when the benefit of time is not readily available. these tales need to be curated differently, made to be encountered in accidental and intentional ways, placed in hands/eyes/laps of people in the moment of consequential decision making. (there ought to be an app for that — “JUST.pause”)


I originally posted this as my facebook status earlier today, and have since reread the original article by Starr a few more times. In these subsequent reads, the following excerpts stood out:

The Reid-trained officers also tended to believe that adolescents were just as capable as adults of withstanding psychologically coercive questioning, including deceit.

In this excerpt below, Schneider is the name of the attorney who called the adoption of the Reid Technique by the llinois Principals Association (I.P.A.) into question, and whose experiences with the training anchor much of Starr’s article.

At one point in the workbook, the phrase “Handling tears” appears, with a blank space underneath for trainees to take down Buckley’s dictation. “Don’t stop,” Schneider wrote in her notes. “Tears are the beginning of a confession. Use congratulatory statement—‘Glad to see those tears, because it tells me that you’re sorry, aren’t you?’ ” Buckley’s only caveat during the session, according to Nirider and Schneider, was that children under the age of ten should not be interrogated. “It was pretty horrifying,” Schneider told me.

And citing the negative impact of zero tolerance policies in schools, Starr writes:

Using Reid-style interrogation in schools can also run counter to educators’ efforts to keep their students out of the criminal-justice system. In 1994, Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act, which mandated that students who brought a weapon to school be expelled. This zero-tolerance policy was later extended to other behaviors, including drug use, but none of it has actually made schools safer. On the contrary, studies show that such policies disproportionately affect minority students, create a hostile school atmosphere, and do not effectively discourage misbehavior. In a report published last May, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing called for an end to zero tolerance, noting that it has expanded “the school-to-prison pipeline by criminalizing the behaviors of children as young as kindergarten age.”

The criminalization of children and youth in urban schools, in particular, from a very young age has been documented again and again and again. The codified misreadings of bodies and discursive practices undermine the purported purposes of schools as sites of education and instead push an agenda of schools as places where young bodies must be contained, confined, and sometimes, restrained.

News stories describing the dehumanizing acts that take place in schools have become too commonplace:

These are not isolated incidents, and while a definitive analysis of frequency and type of in-school criminalization and policing of young people’s bodies may not ever be fully possible, the endless list of links that fill up my internet searches for policing or arrests in schools suggests that the numbers of incidents are high.

The unsettling symbiosis between the education and criminal justice systems was one of the factors that initially propelled me toward graduate studies 18 years ago. Now, nearly two decades later, phrases like “school to prison pipeline” and “at risk youth” have become uncomfortably absorbed into the fabric of urban educational (practice, policy, and research) discourses. Change isn’t going to come from energy expended in one domain alone. No single pedagogical approach or policy change or law revision or media campaign is going to be enough to qualitatively reorient school personnel toward the young people who walk the school halls every day such that they see people and not troublemakers or bodies in need of discipline; such that the creative capacities, curiosities, and practices of civic participation in which kids are already engaged in can be noticed as such rather than regarded with skepticism, suspicion, and disdain.

As the theme song for Bob McAllister’s Wonderama reminded its viewers: Kids are people, too.*


*Too bad not all people are treated humanely.