According to recent data published by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 12% of Black girls have experienced an out-of-school suspension in the U.S., compared with 7% of Native American girls, 4% of Latinas, and 2% of White girls. Among girls with a disability, the rate of out-of-school suspension is 19%. In some states–such as Wisconsin (21%), Missouri (16%), and Michigan (16%)–the rate of suspension among Black girls is significantly higher than the national rate.
These statistics also reveal that the marginalization of Black children from school includes more than just suspensions. Black children nationwide are 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students who have experienced a school-related arrest. However, a closer look will reveal an even greater racial disparity among girls. According to OCR data, Black girls are 31% of girls referred to law enforcement and about 43% of girls who have experienced a school-related arrest.
I have been quoted as saying, "Black girls who have been suspended got kicked out for being loud, even if they weren't being disrespectful…It's cultural for Black girls to speak up, and they are going to fight back if something is wrong." And I stand by that. However, there is much more to the story.
There are many explanations for the elevated use of suspension and other exclusionary discipline with Black girls. Like their male counterparts, Black girls are subjected to punitive policies that emphasize discipline over school-based approaches that can repair relationships and harm between students and, when necessary, between students and adults. Black girls are pushed out of school for fighting each other, cursing at adults, social bullying, poor student performance, truancy, and violating dress codes, among other citations. One of the most controversial reasons for which Black girls are removed from school has been "student defiance," a subjective reference to behaviors that are perceived as being in direct opposition to the institution's social norms and expectations.
My own forthcoming research on Black girls and school push-out found that when Black girls connect with the teacher, they tend to feel more comfortable asking questions in the classroom. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when student-teacher relationships are poor, Black girls may exhibit any number of behaviors that openly signal dissatisfaction, such as yelling at or using profanity with the teacher. In a recent research interview, a Dean of discipline for a high school in Oakland, CA, discussed a scenario which may help to illustrate this point.
“I get referrals for the simplest reasons,” he said. “For girls yelling, ‘I don’t understand!’ For teachers saying, ‘Did you come to school to learn?’ And then student saying, ‘You come to school to teach?’…You know, our babies can be kind of snappy, so the way they say it, you know, it might have an expletive in there somewhere… The sisters bring a lot attention to themselves…They’re not docile.”
Docility does not make for an engaged, critical-thinking student. Nor does unruly, disruptive behavior. However, the expressive nature of Black girls may inform—and sometimes escalate—student-teacher conflict. Teachers who feel successful with their students attribute their success to connecting with students beyond the required coursework. As one teacher once told me, given the plethora of issues that affect a student’s performance, “the teacher has to teach more than just the curriculum.”
As parents, educators, and concerned community members, we must examine the ways in which our educational institutions are underserving our children—and pushing our girls out of school alongside the boys. The conversation about school discipline is not about excusing abhorrent behavior. It’s about implementing alternative reactions to negative student behavior and developing relationships that can teach our young people about who they are, and how they should behave in a loving learning environment. For our girls, we must also reflect upon the extent to which our reactions to their behaviors are more about whether they are being "good girls.” We also have to consider how expressions of Black femininity (e.g., how girls dress or wear their hair) may be pathologized by school rules. In our haste to teach children social rules, we sometimes fail to examine whether these rules are rooted in patriarchy and/or racial oppression, and ultimately serve to undermine the full expression and learning of young, Black women and girls.
We can, and must, do better.
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is an author and social justice scholar with more than 20 years of experience in the areas of social and economic justice, education, and juvenile justice. A 2012 Soros Justice Fellow, Dr. Morris is the Co-Founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and a faculty member at St. Mary’s College of California. Dr. Morris is the author of Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century (The New Press, 2014), Too Beautiful for Words: A Novel, (MWM Books, 2011) and a forthcoming book on the criminalization of Black girls in schools. For more information, visit moniquewmorris.com and follow Dr. Morris on Twitter @MoniqueWMorris.