A High School Banned Students From Selling Snacks. Predictably, a Black Market for Snacks Emerged.

Carlos was carrying some very hot commodities when he was seized by the fuzz.

It’s actually quite hot.

It’s not slang. Carlos (not his real identity) was a ninth-grade student from a Chicago suburb high school. He had been caught selling illegal chips to another student. For the crime, he was summarily sentenced to a one-day suspension from school—and his mother was called to pick him up.

As Karlyn Gorski, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago, relates in a paper recently published in the journal Youth & SocietyCarlos is only one of many people who are part of an extensive black market in snack foods at Hamilton High. This exists despite every effort by teachers, school security guards, school administrators and school officials to eradicate it. Gorski explained that Carlos received a mild punishment for the busted chip-deal. Administrators granted leniency because Carlos, a freshman, might not have understood the school’s zero tolerance policy regarding unapproved snack-related capitalism. Repeat offenders, she writes, faced in-school suspensions—the high school equivalent of solitary confinement.

Gorski spent 112 days observing students and adults at Hamilton during the 2019–2020 school year, though her research was cut short by the school’s closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She witnessed a large black market for snacks while there. Although they were children, the perpetrators organized elaborate strategies to conceal sales, create networks of sellers and provide a shorthand for the market.

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School banned snack sales and ensured only law-abiding individuals would be able to sell snacks.

The enforcement of the ban on snack selling was strong. Security guards relied even more heavily upon mounted cameras to locate the culprits.

“I had to go get him out of class, send him to the dean, do the whole thing,” one security guard—pseudonymously monikered “Karen”—told Gorski. It was more important to punish a student for a non-victimless offense than what he may have learned that day in class.

The paper has serious implications for what the school is teaching students beyond amusing stories about the deception of school snack cops and their heroic efforts to defeat them. Gorski states that adults can react negatively to the actions of youth, which in some other situations might be allowed, or even celebrated.

Not all snacks sold in schools were illegal. Gorski reports that students selling cookies in Spanish to help raise funds for Peru trip were permitted to sell their products openly. Selling cookies for profit was not allowed. The school was proud of the snack sale profits that went to organizations under its purview. However, the school kept control and made sure the funds were used for something worthy.

Gorski, however, writes that when teachers or administrators caught students “selling”, their motivations were “subjected to moral scrutiny”. He cites an example in which Gorski describes a situation where a teacher stated to a student, “poor use of resources” for selling snacks.

Hamilton students were majority minority and approximately 80 per cent from low income families. They had no problem deconstructing Hamilton’s unfair treatment of different economic activities. Gorski was told by a student code-named Lucas that they were “basically training us for fake worlds” where good behaviour is encouraged and money is only considered valuable if the sellers are honest.

“Adults thus undermined their own disciplinary apparatus by demonstrating its unfairness,” concludes Gorski. “With consequences so irregularly applied, and the activities they aimed to prohibit so mandate…it made more sense to disregard the prohibition and enjoy the rewards of buying and selling treats.”

Gorski’s high school snack policy is a fascinating microcosm for similar arrangements elsewhere in the world. Prohibition in the United States, which prohibited alcohol consumption for over a decade, created a black market to keep the liquor flowing to anyone who could afford it. These are some of the many outcomes that drug prohibition has had.

Gorski points out a more dangerous parallel: Prisons where illegal drugs, ranging from cigarettes and hard drugs are traded on a black marketplace. Indeed, the government can’t even keep drugs out of prisons—how could the drug war be anything but a failure everywhere else?

Yet, students are forced to act more criminally if they want to be able to engage in the marketplace. These are patterns that schools shouldn’t be teaching.

“Through their disciplinary apparatuses, schools not only punish deviance or delinquency—they produce it,” Gorski argues.

Gorski stated that Carlos had been busted for illegal snack selling days before Gorski said the student was targeted by school security guards who approached him when he arrived Hamilton the next morning.

Carlos explained to the researcher that they asked Carlos if I was selling. I answered no, because I’d stopped.

Did he learn his lesson? Well, yes, actually.

Gorski said, “But they don’t know,” and he smirked. “That my two employees still sell,”