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Rethinking school discipline for Black girls

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: May 11, 2016 - 9:40:05 AM

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WASHINGTON—Between the social media campaigns, “Black Girls Rock” and “Black Girl Magic” are thousands of Black girls in real life who find themselves more likely to receive corporal punishment, in school suspension, out of school suspension and more likely to be referred to law enforcement or the juvenile justice system.

The harsh images and stories have played out across the media such as the Black girl who was thrown from her desk by the resource officer in Spring Valley, South Carolina, while the teacher and other students looked on. 

“We see more and more Black girls getting in trouble, and we need to move to correct that issue,” said Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), a founding member of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls. “Women and girls aren’t being addressed.”

Activists went to Capitol Hill, April 28, to testify before Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, as well as Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) at “Rethink Discipline: A Conversation on Black Girls in the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”

The event took a closer look at the biases, policies, and practices that exacerbate the disproportionate discipline Black girls face in schools, and how the criminalization of their behavior often fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.

It brought together leading experts in the field who have examined the intersectionality of race and gender in analyzing the criminalization of Black girls in schools.

“Teachers in schools have been shown to respond to girls who are Black doing some of the same things as boys, but it being interpreted far more negatively because it is coming from a body that is Black and female,” said UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School professor Kimberle Crenshaw.

Dr. Crenshaw is also Founder of the African American Policy Forum and co-author of “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.”  Activists want the same time and attention given to girls that is given to boys in programs like President Obama’s program My Brother’s Keeper.

“I firmly believe that because we don’t have a conversation to talk about trauma, we don’t have a conversation to talk about sexuality, we don’t have a conversation to talk about the asymmetries in solidarity, it is [for] all of those reasons that we’ve lost the Voting Rights Act, we’ve lost affirmative action,” she explained.

“Even if we don’t care about Black women per se, the issue isn’t just about Black women; it is about the interests of the community as a whole.”

Black girls are seen and viewed differently by harmless variables, explained Dr. Monique Morris author of “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.”

“We find that Black girls are being differentially affected by dress codes, largely because we haven’t got a framework for understanding victimization. ... Girls show up—a White girl and a Black girl in the same pair of shorts—but Black girl has a booty and suddenly it’s a problem,” Dr. Morris said. “But the girls know this and they feel this and they get sent home.”

The way Black girls are disciplined according to Dr. Morris is rooted in bias and stereotypes and it affects their ability to be successful in school.

“When we push kids out of school, when we establish an educational climate that provides incentive and actually tells kids to go home ... we are denying them a critical opportunity for their own well-being,” Dr. Morris explained.

“Education is a critical protective factor against involvement in the criminal and juvenile legal system, so when you do this act, of telling ... girls they cannot go to school, you are engaging in the facilitation of their criminalization.”

The massive stereotypes of ‘what girls do’ and ‘what girls should be doing’ become disadvantages for Black girls.

“Girls who are Black are almost by definition set up to be read as noncompliant. ... This is a telling indictment of a school regime that students clearly understand to be far more invested in disciplining students than in helping them,” Dr. Crenshaw said.

“The ‘strong Black woman’ narrative has been contorted and used in so many harmful ways, [and] has catastrophic trickle-down effects to Black girls in schools, whose needs for mental and social support go unaddressed.