Atiya Haynes, a high school honor student in Michigan, was recently suspended for the remainder of her senior year for failing to remove a pocketknife from her bag (which she kept for her own protection) before attending a football game on school grounds. Many have raised their eyebrows on this one, questioning why the school would take such a harsh stance against this student and why so many Black girls seem to be the target of discipline that removes them from school.
“What’s the deal with these zero tolerance policies, anyway?” someone recently asked me.
The 1994 Gun Free Schools Act (GFSA) instituted zero-tolerance policies associated with students possessing weapons on school campuses. In fact, possessing a gun in school became grounds for immediate expulsion for at least one year. Though initially faced with legal challenges, the law set in motion a hyper-punitive tone to school discipline, via “zero tolerance” policies, that provided little to no room for school administrators to design tailored responses to problematic student behavior. In 1995, the U.S. Secretary of Education praised the effectiveness of zero tolerance policies, but by 2008, research began to show how harmful these policies actually were.
In the 20 years that the GFSA has been in effect, Black girls have become the fastest growing population to experience suspensions and expulsions, making them clear targets of punitive school discipline. According to the U.S. Department of Education, and as discussed in a recent report by the National Women’s Law Center and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Black girls are 17 percent of all female students, 31 percent of girls referred to law enforcement and about 43 percent of girls with a school-related arrest.
But at the time the GFSA was being implemented, little research centered Black girls age 12-17 in these discussions. In fact, there were only a few narratives that explored the experiences of Black girls, particularly in schools that were experiencing higher levels of violence. In her book Sugar in the Raw (1997), Rebecca Carroll shared the narratives of Black girls, including some who foreshadowed how zero tolerance policies would treat them in the years to come.
For example, in that book, then-14 year-old “Latisha” from Portland, Oregon said, “A lot of people say I got an attitude, but I don’t really see it. The only reason people be saying I have attitude is because I stand my own ground.”
Standing one’s ground now has other connotations in the world of criminal justice policy, but for too many Black girls, it has become associated with being “willfully defiant”—a relatively nebulous term that scholars Jamilia Blake, Nikki Jones, and others have found particularly problematic in the lives of Black girls.
Safety on—and off—school grounds is an important issue that should be of concern to us all, but the absence of a dynamic and holistic series of interventions to youth violence has criminalized educational environments and made it such that a generation has now grown up associating schools with correctional facilities.
“They’re like mini-prisons,” one young woman said to me during a recent focus group about schools in Chicago.
She is not the only Black girl to respond in this way. In fact, I have heard these same words from Black girls in Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York, Boston, and New Orleans over the course of the past three years. Many Black girls have described their processes of having to walk through metal detectors, to having their bags searched, and to learning under the surveillance of law enforcement in their schools as “stressful” and embarrassing conditions that make them not even want to go to school some days—especially if they are menstruating.
“They search through your bags and stuff,” a young woman told me during the Chicago focus group. “Especially for girls…like we have personal things inside of there.”
“Yeah,” another girl said. “And they have men checking it sometimes.”
Some may consider these personal liberties a small sacrifice for the safety of the school; but zero tolerance schools—and their blanket response to problematic juvenile behavior—often underserve Black girls in other ways as well. According to Barbara Guthrie, Professor of Nursing at Northeastern University, the GFSA and the “prison”-like environment it facilitated may also have exacerbated other conditions related to the physical and mental health of Black girls.
“Girls generally, and African American girls more specifically, are less likely to be tested for Attention Deficit Disorder,” said Dr. Guthrie. “Their acting out is interpreted as non compliance with the no-tolerance rule. Additionally, African Americans are less likely than their White counterparts to be evaluated for other mental health issues such as sexual or physical abuse and/or depression that may lead to them being expelled for their behavior.”
Ultimately, whether or not our children are now “safer” is subject to interpretation. Are there fewer guns on campus? Yes, and that’s a good thing. Did the legislation, and the policies that followed, expand the actions that bring Black girls and boys under the supervision of the criminal legal system? Absolutely, and that’s not a good thing.
In many ways, instruments of surveillance, such as police in schools and metal detectors, which were meant to protect our children against the visible weapons that threaten their safety have been replaced by policy “weapons” that criminalize adolescent behavior and push children away from school for noncriminal behaviors. This renders them vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and victimization in other domains—thereby threatening their safety. In other words, schools may be increasingly gun free; but the criminalization that has occurred as a result of zero tolerance policies is pushing many Black children who are not threats to public safety out of school.
The culture of the thinking person is one of revision. If something is broken, then fix it. It is time to rethink and revise the policies and practices that entangle our daughters, alongside their brothers, in learning environments that conflate school with prison. The future of our children depends on how well we can envision and implement weapon-free schools that do not push children away from their places of learning when they make mistakes, but rather, engage them in meaningful interventions that can foster learning and the development of positive relationships that ultimately allow for our children to thrive.
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is a social justice scholar, and author of Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century and a forthcoming book on the criminalization of Black girls in schools. Follow Dr. Morris on Twitter @MoniqueWMorris.