A common practice with far-reaching impact
By Carol Ozemhoya, Our Weekly News Contributor
Recently, Our Weekly ran a story about a group of teen girls who were strip searched and chastised at a middle school on the East Coast. No apparent reason was given by the school’s administration, except that the girls – who were Black and Latino – were giggling and boisterous in a school hallway.
While the situation is under investigation, incidents of young girls of color being singled out for disciplinary actions are unfortunately common in schools across the U.S. New findings reveal a stunning and far-reaching impact on these teens and even pre-teens that can negatively affect them and impact their futures in an alarming way.
‘Adultification’ of Black girls
It’s being called “the criminalization of Black girls.” It’s also being referred to as the “adultification of Black girls.”
Does it stem from racism or prejudice? Or can it be attributed to research that suggests Black girls are perceived as maturing at a faster rate than their White counterparts (in general) and thus seem beyond their age. Another point to be made is that Black kids (girls and boys) tend to ask more questions of authority than White kids.
Suspensions of Black girls from schools are often driven by teacher bias and insufficient mental health resources, says a report from AmericanProgress.org published in 2017. They also occur when students break school rules that are inherently racially biased. For example, a charter school in Massachusetts suspended two Black sisters for wearing natural braided hairstyles, which violated the school dress code.
As recent as last week, a report was issued by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality that details stunning statistics and first-hand accounts of how American society and our education system are stacking the odds against young girls of color.
Beginning as early as pre-school
It starts early, says Rep. Karen Bass (CA-37). “It can actually start with pre-school,” she told Our Weekly. “Can you believe it?”
Rep. Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, says her and her colleagues are aware and working on legislation to combat the trend. “I am focusing here in Congress on prison reform from the perspective of African-American women and children. It’s not shocking what our numbers are when you see how the labeling starts at a young age.”
As early as age 5, Black girls are reportedly viewed by adults as more knowledgeable about sex and adult topics, less in need of nurture and support, and significantly older than White girls of the same age. The excessive discipline Black children experience for offenses such as disruptive behavior and tantrums makes them 10 times more likely to
face discipline, retention or even incarceration later in life, reports AmericanProgress.org.
Indeed, that study and Rep. Bass are not off the mark. The recent Georgetown study found that adults saw Black girls age 5-19 years as more “independent” and that they knew more about adult topics, such as sex. This biased outlook means that adults – such as educators – had the inclination to believe Black girls need less protection and support, and more discipline.
More children being held back
In addition, research from the Council of State Governments Justice Center concluded that Black girls are at greater risk of dropping out or being held back, which in turn leads to a three-fold increase in the chances of becoming entangled in the juvenile justice system, and later, in the adult system.
The disciplinary practices being employed in school damage social-emotional and behavioral development; strip away important educational experiences; interfere with the process of identifying and addressing underlying issues; and contribute to increased family stress and burden, says the AmericanProgress.org report.
Much of the Georgetown study involved focus groups. The researchers spoke to nine focus groups with a total of about 50 Black girls and women of varied ages and in diverse regions of the country, over a year from 2017 to 2018.
“Almost all the Black girls and women we talked to said they’d experienced ‘adultification’ bias as children,” reports study co-author Jamilia Blake in a statement released with the study results. “And they overwhelmingly agreed that it led teachers and other adults to treat them more harshly and hold them to higher standards than White girls.”
‘To society we’re not innocent’
Said one of the study participants: “To society we’re not innocent. And White girls are always innocent.”
Those in the study recounted experiences that reflected how adults saw them as older than they actually were and turned situations into traumatic experiences. For example, one participant revealed an encounter with a police officer – he did not believe she was only 15.
He handcuffed her and fingerprinted her, insisting she was older and should have been carrying identification.
Others discussed as having “an attitude” or being “threatening” in school. Too often the perceived “attitude” ends up with detention or even suspension. One participant said, “They always feel like you’re talking back, but you’re not. You’re just trying to defend, like get your side across.”
According to a report from the National Women’s Law Center using data from the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Black girls in school are five times more likely to be suspended than White girls. Experts believe that what played into the adultification of Black girls is the stereotypes that people often label Black women with, such as the “angry Black woman” or “jezebel.”
Myth of ‘early maturity’
Dr. Monique W. Morris has been studying the criminalization of Black girls for years and wrote a book on the subject called “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” (2016), and she is also the founder and president of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute. She says that studies have not necessarily proven the perception that Black girls mature faster than other ethnic groups.
“Adults perceive that Black girls are older than they are… early onset of puberty for all girls is a nation trend… but it’s been in our school system for decades that educators perceive Black girls are more mature. The inclination is to be harsher, have less patience… we need to let Black girls be girls.”
She said the perception of Black girls by our education system goes beyond their minds – “Their bodies are being read in a way that is impacting them, intentionally or unintentionally.”
So, a young Black girl can get suspended for an infraction that comes from a perception of a teacher or an administrator or, currently with the presence of law enforcement on many school grounds, security personnel. This goes on her record and now she is also probably labeled as a “troublemaker.” She becomes frustrated. Her grades slip, and now the chances of her getting into a good college are fading. She ends up with a meaningless job that provides little hope for a bright future, and she may fall into trouble later on because of earlier frustrations in school. Many experts believe discriminatory patterns from school can and do lead to Black girls being funneled into the criminal justice system, and prison.
Parents, educators must work together
Morris tells Our Weekly that parents as well as the Black community need to step up and engage educators as well as Black girls.
“We need to have ways to monitor how our girls are being criminalized in our communities. Often times we talk about men and boys and don’t realize we need to address what’s happening to our girls,” Morris said.
The author and 2018 TED Women speaker says we need to develop “curriculum that responds to our young people and is inclusive to their experiences. We need advocacy to respond with programs and efforts to address their experiences and we need healing informed responses.”
Added Morris, “Parents need to advocate for schools to bring in discussion groups so the girls can have conversations about their experiences where they spend a lot of their time – in school. Communities need to think of ways to partner with girls… stand with them when they tell their truths.”
Some of the next steps in school systems include:
Banning all suspension practices in pre-K and early grades.
Teaching conflict resolution to educators.
Trying alternative solutions to punishment, such as focusing on prevention, providing more support and bringing students together to solve problems on their own in small groups.
Hire more counselors rather than police officers.
Indicators and parental resources
Morris says that there are signs that parents can see that could indicate their girls are being “criminalized” at school. “If you get a series of calls from an educator or if your child doesn’t want to go to school, it’s time to look into it.”
She advises that parents “stay active and engage your child and the educators around her.”
But it’s not always the school’s or the teacher’s fault, Morris said. “Black girls who act out in school are usually dealing with something else going on in their life… usually with girls, it can be with sexual violence or domestic violence… and that’s not an easy conversation to have.”
But it’s clear that communication is key, not only with educators but also with parents and their children.
The National Women’s Law Center, offers the “Let Her Learn” tool kit at dignityinschools.org /resources. There is a section in Morris’ book “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools”, which offers resources and suggestions for parents of Black girls. The book is available on Amazon and has received rave reviews.