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What it's like to be a Black girl criminalized and pushed out of school

Author Monique Morris will lead a discussion on how to stop school pushout of these students in Philadelphia.
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Last fall, only a month into the school year, a video of a confrontation in a South Carolina high school classroom went viral. The video, about 15 seconds long, showed a school resource officer slamming a 16-year-old student to the ground in her desk and dragging her across the floor to the front of the room, where he handcuffed her. The officer’s actions came after the student did not follow his directions to get up from her seat.

After the confrontation, the student was arrested and suspended along with another student (also Black and female) who recorded the video and spoke out against the officer’s actions.

The video ignited a national discussion about school discipline, student behavior, and brutality, but it also raised a lens to one group whose collective plight gets little national attention: Black girls.

A growing body of data shows that Black girls are disproportionately disciplined at school. They receive punishments that are harsher and more frequent than what their White female peers receive.

The Black girl discipline gap also exists in Philadelphia, where the number of school resource officers exceeds the number of counselors, according to District employee data.

The disparity contributes to a phenomenon known as school pushout. Pushout occurs when punitive school policies criminalize students and put them on a track to involvement with the juvenile justice system or the Department of Human Services. For a Black girl, discipline can be racialized if an authority figure approaches her with preconceived ideas or fears.

A Black girl’s body language and manner, for instance, could be misinterpreted by a teacher who takes a student’s tone of voice or lack of eye contact as a show of disrespect. This might lead a teacher to use subjective impressions to cite the student’s behavior as a violation of a code of conduct.  

Studies show that school officials often rush to punish students without considering alternative methods, including those rooted in restorative justice, therapeutic crisis intervention, or trauma support. When such alternatives are absent, Black girls can feel isolated from school, opening up a pathway to low achievement, suspension, expulsion, and dropping out. In turn, their chances of arrest and juvenile detention increase.

On April 4, Monique Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools will lead a roundtable discussion with the Education Law Center about how to end school pushout for Black girls in Philadelphia. Morris’ book captures the stories of Black teenage girls in cities across the country who have experienced what it’s like to be made, or made to feel like, a criminal at school.

Before that discussion, here are four sobering facts about the discipline of Black girls in Philadelphia schools and across the country.

Black girls are the fourth most suspended group of students.

Black girls across the country are suspended at higher rates than other girls and even higher than some groups of boys, except for Black, Hispanic, and multiracial boys. In 2011-12 nationwide, 12 percent of Black girls without disabilities and 6 percent of Black girls with disabilities received out of school suspensions, compared to 4 percent of White girls.

Black girls are the fastest-growing population in the juvenile justice system.

In Philadelphia, one in five high school students has been involved with child welfare or the juvenile justice system. Girls in the juvenile justice system are disproportionately victims of sexual violence, and the system fails to address the trauma that girls entered the system with, reinforcing a concept called the sexual abuse to prison pipeline.

Black girls are disproportionately disciplined for subjective behavior, including “defiance” and “disrespect.”

According to information from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, 87 percent of suspensions given to Black students last year in Philadelphia were for “conduct,” the only suspension category that allows for a teacher’s discretion.

Black girls are referred to law enforcement at a disproportionate rate.

Of all the students who received referrals to law enforcement in Philadelphia in 2011, Black girls accounted for 33 percent, compared to White girls who only accounted for 2 percent, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

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Fabiola Cineas

@fabiolacineas
Fabiola is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Notebook. She graduated from Dickinson College in 2012 Since then, she has taught seventh graders Language Arts in Camden, New Jersey and earned her Masters in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.