We have a pressing discipline problem that begins in classrooms and for far too many children ends in prison. As I watched the video of the recent assault on a South Carolina student in her classroom, I thought about my own experiences in classrooms.
That girl certainly could have been me, as I have been labeled obstinate and have always had a strong sense of what I thought was right or wrong. I struggled to learn to develop an acceptable voice in school.
In first and second grade, I screamed and cried about what wasn’t fair or quietly just walked away from the perceived injustice. I was the child that most teachers did not want in their classroom.
The video left me with many unanswered questions about why zero tolerance discipline policies and police in schools continue to put up barriers for black and Latino students to learn. Police in schools, suspensions and expulsions push children out of the classroom every day and contribute to the nation’s alarming dropout rate.
What is not discussed is the impact these disciplinary policies have on black girls — black girls like me once upon a time.
The zero tolerance policies that were arbitrarily implemented in the 1990s swept through traditional public schools and adversely affected the most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged black and Latino students. What happened in that South Carolina classroom was not an isolated incident. It happens every day.
Since the 1990s and the increased use of zero tolerance policies, there has been an increase in police presence in schools. Police presence directly encourages teachers to refer classroom behavior issues to the criminal justice system. Prior to the 1970s there were fewer than 100 officers in schools; in the 1990s that number rose to more than 2,000.
Between 1990 and 2000 there were 4,563 school arrests, in the 2006-07 school year that number increased to 12,918. About two-thirds of the arrests were for misdemeanors. Furthermore, 70 percent of the students involved in “in-school” arrests who were referred to law enforcement, were black or Latino.
Another study on race and discipline found that black students did not have more misbehavior issues than white students, yet data on discipline suggests otherwise. Unfortunately, students of color are more likely to attend schools with harsher discipline policies. One explanation for extreme discipline policies is the perception that students of color living in economically deprived communities require stricter and harsher punishments in order to maintain order and safety.
The intersection between gender and race is even more disconcerting. This doesn’t get talked about enough.
Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls, and 45 percent of girls suspended from school in grades k-12 nationwide are black. Similarly, 42 percent of girls expelled from school are black. These are the highest rates among all racial and ethnic groups.
Black girls are more likely to be suspended for behaviors that challenge views on how a young woman should behave, such as being assertive, speaking up and expressing feelings about injustice in a classroom.
The director of the middle school I attended constantly talked to me about my body language. She often told me to smile and unlock my arms, probably so people wouldn’t label me the angry black girl. I found her concern annoying, but I could have been pushed out of the classroom like many other black girls in this country.
During the same South Carolina event, another teenager was arrested for “disturbing schools” when she voiced her outrage. When what determines disobedience and disruptive behavior is ambiguous and unclear, it becomes a catchall for all behaviors that take time, skill and patience to deal with.
Every teacher has come in contact with a difficult student, but the strength of a good teacher is in his or her classroom management. Schools should be empowering students to have a voice and not silencing them when it matters most. Schools certainly should not be arresting students for behaviors that can and should be dealt with by teachers and principals as they have been in the past.
Educators are facing a unique challenge with black girls that can be addressed through cultural competency training and more comprehensive data collection. Black girls are being pushed out of the classroom simply for being black girls.
National data shows that black girls are increasingly impacted by push-out policies. However, most data collected by states does not paint the full picture of what students are being suspended or expelled for. Categories like “disturbing schools” are murky and in many states often applied to students of color.
There is no doubt that black boys have suffered from a long history of injustice and exclusionary practices by our schools and society, but black girls are also in need of specifically targeted programs.
Kayla Patrick is an education policy researcher with a deep interest in using data-based analysis to inform U.S. education policy and practices, especially to improve the lives of underserved children of color.