Black females represent the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice population. Black females also experienced the most dramatic rise in middle school suspension rates in recent years. Six-year old girls have been arrested in Georgia and Florida for having a tantrum in class. A 13-year old girl near Chicago was charged with a felony theft offense after finding her teacher’s glasses and seeking to return them to her, and a Los Angeles high school girl was slammed to the floor of her school and arrested after dropping a piece of cake on the floor.
From these and other incidents in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that punitive disciplinary practices and other criminalizing policies that fuel what we understand as a “school to prison pipeline” impact the girls as well as the boys. However, a deeper look reveals that perhaps the “pipeline” analogy is too linear a framework to capture the education-system pathways to incarceration for black girls.
In discussions with young women who have dropped out of school, or who are attempting to return to school following a period of incarceration, it is becoming clearer that we must think about the multiple ways in which racism and patriarchy marginalize black girls in their learning environments—places that have become hostile learning environments for girls who are too frequently marginalized for acts of “defiance” or for being too “loud” and aggressive in ways that make them nonconforming to society’s gender expectations. For too many black girls, schools are places where they are subject to unwanted sexual harassment, where they are judged and punished for who they are, not necessarily for what they have done, and where their experiences have been overshadowed by a male-dominated discourse on dignity in schools.
In a recent focus group on the subject, a young woman spoke of dropping out of school after she noticed that her teachers were more likely to help the males than the females. She and other young women described scenarios where school faculty would positively intervene when their male counterparts failed to complete assignments or attend class. These teachers seemed determined to “save” the boys; but when girls behaved in similar ways, the young women described how they were met with harsh, exclusionary punishment or no response at all.
To this point a young woman stated, “They don’t care about us.” She lowered her head and stared blankly at the table in front of her, visibly convinced that there were few people who cared about what happened to her or others like her.
Unlike this young woman, I am not convinced that people don’t care. Educators and other stakeholders are typically in this field because they care very deeply for our young people. I believe the problem might be a structural one.
The “pipeline” framework, as I argue in Race, Gender, and the “School to Prison Pipeline”: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls, was largely developed from the conditions and experiences of males. As such, it may limit our ability to see the ways in which black girls are affected by instruments of surveillance (i.e., zero tolerance policies, law enforcement in schools, metal detectors, etc.), and the ways in which advocates, scholars, and community stakeholders may have wrongfully masculinized black girls’ experiences, leaving them without a proper understanding or articulation of the relationships between educational and other factors that are associated with their paths toward incarceration.
We cannot focus exclusively on the conditions of males and hope to impact the experiences of females. Instead, we need a robust conversation about how to reduce the criminalization of black females and males in our nation’s learning environments. We must infuse our analysis of “school to prison” pathways with the experiences of black girls, such that we can provide for and inform efforts to interrupt the “school to prison” pathways for all youth.
Monique W. Morris is a Soros Justice Fellow.
Race, Gender, and the “School to Prison Pipeline”: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls is the first in a series of reports from the author addressing the education-system factors associated with the disproportionate confinement of African American girls.