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‘A battle for the souls of Black girls’

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Zulayka McKinstry’s once silly, sociable daughter has stopped seeing friends, talking to siblings and trusting anyone — changes McKinstry dates to the day in January 2019 when her daughter’s school principal decided that “hyper and giddy” were suspicious behaviors in a 12-year-old girl.

McKinstry’s daughter was sent to the nurse’s office and forced to undress so that she could be searched for contraband that did not exist.

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“It’s not fair that now I have to say, ‘It’s OK to be Black and hyper and giddy,’ that it’s not a crime to smile,” McKinstry said. “And she doesn’t believe me.”

The Binghamton, New York, case is now the subject of what might be a groundbreaking federal lawsuit by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has drawn on the disparate treatment and discipline rates of Black girls to pursue it.

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The disproportionate discipline rates of Black boys have long dominated discussions about the harmful effects of punitive discipline policies, but recent high-profile cases have begun to reframe the debate around the plight of Black girls.

Statistically, Black boys have led the country in suspensions, expulsions and school arrests, and the disparities between them and white boys have been a catalyst for national movements for change. But Black girls' discipline rates are not far behind those of Black boys, and in several categories, such as suspensions and law enforcement referrals, the disparities between Black and white girls eclipse those between Black and white boys.

A New York Times analysis of the most recent discipline data from the Education Department found that Black girls are more than five times more likely than white girls to be suspended at least once from school, seven times more likely to receive multiple out-of-school suspensions than white girls and three times more likely to receive referrals to law enforcement. Black boys experienced lower rates of the same punishments compared with white boys.

In New York City, Black girls in elementary and middle school were about 11 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers in 2017, according to a report from the Education Trust-New York, a research and advocacy group. In Iowa, Black girls were nine times more likely to be arrested at school than white girls, according to a state-by-state analysis conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We are in a battle for the souls of Black girls,” said Monique Morris, executive director of Grantmakers for Girls of Color and author of the book “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School.”

The disproportionate discipline rates among girls indicate what researchers have long said about all Black children: It is not that they misbehave more than their peers, but their behaviors may be judged more harshly. Federal civil rights investigations have found generally that Black students are punished more harshly than their white peers for the same behavior.

Black girls are viewed by educators as more suspicious, mature, provocative and aggressive than their white peers, said Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and an author of the first robust study of “adultification bias” against Black girls. The study found that Black girls as young as 5 were viewed by adults as less innocent than white girls.

The Binghamton lawsuit, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund last year against the Binghamton City School District, will test whether such studies can translate into legal recourse.

The organization argued that administrators “were motivated by false race- and gender-based stereotypes in directing, facilitating and conducting these unlawful searches” on McKinstry’s daughter and three other 12-year-old Black girls. The school nurse who conducted the searches called the girls "loud, disrespectful and having ‘attitudes,’ " the complaint said. It accused the nurse of commenting that the breasts of one of the girls were unusually large for her age and of invoking the “stereotypical view of Black girls as older and more mature than white girls of similar age.”

“This case is about the criminalization of Black childhood,” said Cara McClellan, a lawyer who is representing the girls.

In a statement, Shannon O’Connor, lawyer for the Binghamton City School District, maintained its position that the four girls “presented symptoms that suggested the school nurse should provide a standard health and safety check” and that they were not strip-searched. She said the girls were cleared without “incident, complaint or discipline of any kind.”

Black girls find a spotlight

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In 2014, President Barack Obama announced a national initiative called My Brother’s Keeper to improve the lives of young Black men. Among the program’s goals: school discipline reform.

A few months later, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor and scholar of race theory, wrote an opinion article titled “The Girls Obama Forgot.” She also published a report that concluded Black girls were all but ignored by policymakers, funders and researchers in discipline discussions. An NAACP Legal Defense Fund report in 2014 said inattention to Black girls had “fueled the assumption that all girls are doing fine in school,” though they also sustained academic and economic setbacks.

But scholars say that Black girls are still seen as a footnote. “The attitude is, everything starts with boys. Paint it pink, and it works for girls,” Epstein said.

LaTasha DeLoach has been working for years through Iowa-based organizations G!World and Sankofa Outreach Connection to dismantle the perception that Black girls are not as endangered by systemic racism as boys.

“These are slave narratives,” she said. “Black men were publicly hanged, while Black women were raped in secret. This tendency to hide Black women’s pain dates back years.”

In 2015, when DeLoach was elected as the first Black woman to serve on the Iowa City Community School Board in 30 years, she began raising alarms about Black girls' discipline rates. The data showed that 75% of Black female discipline referrals were for disruption, compared with 19% for white girls; 69% were for defiance, insubordination or noncompliance, compared with 19% for white girls.

“When you walk into a school here and you’re a Black girl, they’re just waiting for you to open your mouth,” DeLoach said.

The Iowa City Community School District said in a statement that it was “committed to identifying, understanding and rectifying disproportionality within our schools.”

The long-term trauma for Black girls from disproportionate school discipline is little understood, experts say.

The Binghamton case spurred protests and petitions, but the girls — now 14 and starting high school — see no justice.

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“Justice would be for people to know what we go through now and for this never to happen to another African American female,” said McKinstry’s daughter, whom the Times is not identifying to protect the privacy of a minor.

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A state investigation ordered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo produced a report that listed the district’s policies, including its strip-search policy, but did not address the girls' case. The New York State Police Department said its investigation was closed without charges.

In their first public comments since the case erupted, the Binghamton girls said they still struggled to make sense of their treatment.

In the days after the incident, the district acknowledged in a statement the “unintended consequences of making the students feel traumatized” and said they were working with the girls' families “to support their children’s success.”

But the girls say that because the district continues to deny their experience, they still do not feel comfortable attending school here.

McKinstry’s daughter said her middle school grades were affected, some falling from A’s to F’s. “It’s harder to focus when you can feel people are against you,” she said.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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