School to Prison Pipeline: The Criminalization of Black Female Students

When it comes to the school-to-prison pipeline in America, a thought-provoking book by a prominent U.S. author and justice advocate sheds startling insights into an often-overlooked segment of our broken justice system – the discrimination against black girls.

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Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris spotlights a group that is widely overlooked in discussions about the failings of our social, justice and education systems. The co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute (NBWJI) – which focuses on the reduction of racial and gender disparities in the justice system – says young African-American females are rendered particularly invisible due to a range of stigmas and other factors.

Colliding cultural and social biases such as gender, race and poverty lead to multiple oppressions that cause disadvantage and discrimination on more than one front, says Morris, who spent four years researching her powerful book.

Pushout chronicles in careful detail how black girls are the only group of females overrepresented in all discipline categories for which data is collected by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. Black girls receive more severe sentences when they enter the juvenile justice system, and comprise 16% of the total number of girls in school. African-American girls in elementary and secondary schools are suspended at the rate of 12%, compared to only 2% for white girls. Girls with the darkest skin tones are three times more likely to be suspended than with lighter skin tones.

Compared to other young women, black girls also comprise:

-          42% of those who receive corporal punishment

-          42% of girls expelled

-          45% of girls with at least one out of school suspension

-          31% of girls referred to law enforcement

-          34% of girls arrested on campus

The author notes that discussions about the justice system generally focus on the plight of black men and boys. While this group is indeed overrepresented in the prison system, these discussions by their nature exclude conversations about other marginalized groups of people, who may have their own unique needs.

While many cases never even make the news headlines, Pushout details many examples of black girls being punished for comparatively minor infractions or offenses. There’s the case of seven-year-old Tiana Parker, a high achieving, non-disruptive student who was pulled out of school because her dreadlocks, tied back with a bow, were deemed unacceptable to school policy. And that of six-year-old Salecia Johnson, who was arrested by police for allegedly assaulting a principal and charged with battery and criminal damage to property. While charges were later dropped, she was suspended for the rest of the school year.

Or, this offensive incident involving student Shaniaya Hunter, who asked a question in class and was met with the response: “I have been around 37 years, and clearly you are the dumbest girl I have ever met … You know what your purpose is going to be? To have sex and have children because you ain’t gonna never be smart.”

Kiera Wilmot was conducting a science experiment on school property, when an accident resulted in a small explosion, with no damage. There was a perception that she was trying to make a bomb, despite her statement otherwise. Her school’s zero-tolerance policy resulted in her being arrested, handcuffed, and charged, taken to a juvenile assessment facility. At Bill Duncan Opportunity Center, she said she is teased, is not getting the challenge she used to get at school, and is offered less opportunities. These types of punishments and inappropriate responses will only serve to isolate students, and present disadvantages for their learning and personal development.

It is clear that going forward in discussions of the school to prison pipeline system that more attention needs to be given to groups that may immediately be invisible, and to include a broader range of solutions. Focusing on restorative justice or positive behavioural intervention, instead of punitive and exclusionary measures are two ways to begin to achieve this, as outlined in Morris’ appendix to Pushout. There also needs to be specific responses in addressing needs, such as training teachers how to work with students who have experienced trauma such as violence and sexual assault, and training specific to gender based violence and implicit bias.

Ensuring there is funding available for educational opportunities for females of colour is important, too- while more than $100 million philanthropic dollars have been spent in the last decade on creating educational initiatives for boys of colour, less than a million dollars has been given for girls. In trying to keep students in the classroom and out of the prison system, there cannot be blanket solutions for all students.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com