Black Girls Matter: A New Report Shows How Racism Plays a Role in School Suspensions

Victoria Law
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Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women

A young black girl holds up a sign that says "keep it up"

A Black girl holds up an inspirational note at a Montessori school event in Michigan. Photo by Steven Depolo.

Eight-year-olds sometimes throw tantrums. Twelve-year-olds occasionally write on locker room walls. Neither is a reason to handcuff or threaten a child with criminal charges. But a new report by Columbia law professor and race theorist Kimberle Williams Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum has found that race plays a clear role in how public school students are punished.

Even the U.S. Department of Education agrees that punitive school policies disproportionately affect students of color. But it’s not just about punishment. These policies push students into the prison system, a connection known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” With an increased understanding have come efforts to end that pipeline for boys of color. But what about the girls?

The report Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected (PDF) starts to address that question, drawing from interviews with young women, school administrators, teachers, researchers, parents, advocates and service providers in New York City and Boston. Crenshaw and her fellow researchers found several disturbing trends:

  1. The school-to-prison pipeline does exist! Black children are subject to larger achievement gaps and harsher forms of discipline than their white counterparts.
  2. Zero-tolerance schools are chaotic environments in which discipline is prioritized over educational attainment. In addition, discipline frequently enforces gender norms, punishing girls for behavior that’s acceptable for boys.
  3. Increased levels of law enforcement and security personnel sometimes make girls feel less safe and thus less likely to attend school.
  4. Punitive measures lead to disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system.
  5. Schools frequently emphasize discipline over counseling.

Some of these trends are gender-specific:

  1. Despite supposed zero-tolerance policies, schools often fail to intervene in and stop the sexual harassment and bullying of girls while often penalizing them for defending themselves.
  2. Girls’ sense of attachment and belonging in school can be undermined if their achievements are overlooked or undervalued.
  3. School-age Black girls experience high incidence of interpersonal violence.
  4. Girls are often burdened with familial obligations, undermining their capacity to achieve academic goals.
  5. Pregnancy and parenting make it difficult for girls to engage fully in school.

Pushing Black girls out of school has long-term effects, including financial precariousness. The U.S. Census Bureau found that Black women are paid 64 percent of their white male counterparts. The National Women’s Law Center found that the income gap between people who dropped out of high school versus those who graduated is worse for women than for men. A correlation also exists between education and incarceration—only 36 percent of women entering state prisons had graduated from high school. Forty-two percent of women in state prison did not have a diploma or a GED.

a chart shows that black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls in public school

The report shows that race clearly plays a role in school suspensions.

So what’s to be done? Drawing from their interviews with young Black women and those who work with them, Black Girls Matter offers policy recommendations to change these realities:

  • Expand existing opportunities to ensure the inclusion of Black girls and other girls of color in policy research, advocacy, and programmatic interventions.
  • Ensure an equitable approach to funding that supports the needs of women and girls as well as those of men and boys.
  • Develop robust protocols that ensure that school personnel enforce all students’ rights to an educational environment free of sexual harassment and bullying.
  • Review and revise policies that funnel girls into the juvenile justice system.
  • Devise programs that identify the signs of sexual victimization in order to support girls who have been traumatized by violence.
  • Advance and expand programs that support girls who are pregnant, parenting, or otherwise assuming significant familial responsibilities.
  • Urge the U.S. Department of Education and other information gathering institutions to take the necessary steps to refine statistical reporting on disciplinary matters while disaggregating achievement data along racial and gender lines.
  • Develop the public will to address the challenges facing Black girls and other girls of color through elevating their experiences and engaging stakeholders to become actively involved in their welfare.

Some of these recommendations have already been implemented. In Detroit, for instance, the Catherine Ferguson Academy was established as a public high school for pregnant and parenting teen moms. Recognizing that mothers often lack a safe place to leave their children, the school includes a nursery program. That’s not the only teen mom-specific concern that the school addresses. Formaldehyde, used to preserve specimens for biology class dissections, is toxic to pregnant and nursing women. Instead of exposing students to formaldehyde or penalizing them for prioritizing their health, the school devised a science curriculum around its fully-functioning farm, which includes a community garden, an orchard, bees, and animals such as ducks, goats and chickens. Nearly all of the school’s students—the majority of whom are Black—graduate and go to college.

In 2007, Manley High School had the most “violent incidents” of any Chicago high school. Students are predominantly Black and Latino. Although Black youth make up 42 percent of Chicago’s school population, 75 percent of kids arrested at school are Black. A few years ago, however, Umoja, a student leadership organization, decided to tackle these issues by establishing a program to address school violence without relying on suspension, arrests and other punitive pushout measures. Enter the “peace room.”

In Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prisons Don’t Work and How We Can Do Better, journalist Maya Schenwar described her visit to the peace room:

When a fight has happened, or if one’s brewing, the peace room kicks into high gear. In the program’s early days, it was mostly security guards or teachers who would bring kids to the room for a circle. But as restorative justice has integrated into the fabric of the school’s social environment, some kids have begun to view it as a natural intervention step when they see a situation going sour. Nowadays, friends of kids who’ve been harmed or done harm or threatened to hurt someone or talked about fighting may bring them down to the peace room—especially if those friends have experienced healing there themselves. Kids who’ve become entangled in violence or conflict sometimes take the initiative to come in themselves, as they come to better understand what “hurt” and “healing” feel like.

The day before Schenwar’s visit, two girls ready to fight went to the peace room instead. “Earlier in the year, we would’ve seen them after they got in the fight,” the program’s director Ilana Zafran told Schenwar. A fight was averted and, Schenwar noted, “they’ve promised to come back and continue talking later today.”

Though it doesn’t detail these or other initiatives, the Black Girls Matter report is an important start to a conversation that widens what we think of when we think of the “school-to-prison pipeline.” We need to continue expanding the discussion—and working on ways to dismantle this pipeline for everyone.

Want to know more? Check out Project NIA, which organizes to end youth incarceration, and its list of other resources.

Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women


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