Black girls in Baltimore’s public schools are more likely than other girls to be punished for speaking out in school, defying authority and causing disturbances, according to a study released Thursday by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.
Student testimonials reveal that black girls report being suspended disproportionately for subjective offenses such as challenging conditions at city schools.
“What students are really talking about is a lack of empathy for the experience of young black women,” said Cara McClellan, author of the “Our Girls, Our Future” study.
The report also found that black girls are suspended and expelled at higher rates and for longer periods of time than other girls. While black girls make up about 80 percent of the city schools’ female student body, they accounted for 95 percent of suspensions. The school system suspended girls 2,920 times during the 2016-2017 academic year; 2,772 of them were black girls.
The report focused on girls, but suspension rates for boys in the city and across the state are higher than for girls. Boys are suspended and expelled at twice the rate as girls in the city, according to Maryland State Department of Education data.
According to the school system’s code of conduct, city school officials are not supposed to discipline students for talking back or defiance of authority unless it is severe behavior, such as throwing furniture across a room or pulling a fire alarm.
But city schools chief Sonja Santelises acknowledged that practice is not always consistent with policy. “When we go deeply into what the practice in schools is, we are not fully there yet,” she said.
Santelises said she believes the report raises significant issues that the school system is working now to address. “The report is waving a flag and saying to us: Don’t forget that the particular experiences of black girls are worthy of attention and support. They have particular needs,” she said.
About 80 percent of city public school students are black, making it one of the most racially segregated school districts in Maryland and the country. It is also the state’s only school district with its own police force, whose members are frequently called to break up fights between students.
“Especially because of involvement of school police, the root cause of fights is often ignored because there is such a focus on punishing through exclusion,” McClellan said.
In the past decade, the state school board has adopted regulations that require school systems to significantly reduce suspensions, particularly of black and special education students who are disproportionately suspended.
Statewide, suspensions for disruption and disrespect are greater than any other categories except fights.
Kirk Crawley, a teacher and director of the Law and Leadership Institute at Frederick Douglass High School in West Baltimore, said he’s noticed that girls at the predominantly black school are often punished differently than boys for the same disruptive behaviors, like speaking out in class or using profane language. The “corrective measures” vary from being written up by teachers to getting suspended.
“Teachers would take a more negative approach to [black female students],” Crawley said . “Whatever negative behavior that the teacher perceives is because the behavior doesn’t fall in line with how they think a woman should behave.”
He observed that girls may be reacting to the injustices they encounter.
“A lot of the time, there’s a sense of anger with a lot of the girls,” he said. “But I don’t think it generates from within as much as it’s influenced from the outside.”
McClellan said that the way black girls are perceived by adults influences the way they are disciplined.
According to a 2014 study by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, adults tend to view black girls as “less innocent and more adult-like” than white girls. The study’s authors hypothesized that teachers, school administrators and police subsequently view these vulnerable students as more culpable for their actions and punish them more harshly.
When black girls observe things in school they perceive as problematic or unfair, McClellan said, they are labeled as aggressive rather than encouraged to be activists.
As the mother of three black girls, Santelises said, she fully understands that the behavior of black girls is seen through a lens that assumes they are defiant and mouthy.
These factors contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline” that affects black girls five times more often than it does white girls, McClellan said. While approximately 33 percent of female youth in Maryland are black, they represent 65 percent of the female placements at the Department of Juvenile Services, the state’s juvenile justice agency.
“I think it goes back to the subjective interpretation of Black girls being defiant, disrespectful, disruptive,” Yasmene Mumby, a former city middle school teacher and community organizer said in “Our Girls, Our Future.” “Before you act on your interpretation of a Black girl and her being, you have to ask yourself: ‘Is this my bias at work? Am I about to act on it and impact a child and a scholar and a full being?’ I think that is the first start, because there is no school-to-prison pipeline, there is no criminalization of Black girls, there is no pattern of these experiences, without a teacher acting on their subjective interpretation of that child’s being and then starting the pathway to writing them up for disciplinary actions and then that snowballing.”
“Our Girls, Our Future” proposes several solutions that could level the playing field between black girls and their peers in Baltimore, including greater investment in school counseling services; incorporation of trauma-informed education and restorative justice practices; reduction of reliance on school police and juvenile services; implementation of bias training for teachers; and increased access to learning materials that includes the voices of women of color.
The school system has already started that work, targeting the staff of 40 schools for training in restorative practices and social emotional learning, Santelises said.
“We have to begin to have more substantive movement in building school cultures that foster these affirmative relationships between adults and students,” she said.
McClellan said teachers and school administrators should be more cognizant of including girls in class discussions and simply listening to them.
“Girls want more opportunities for critical thinking and discussion in their classes, so they can have an opportunity to talk about some of the things they are seeing in a context that won’t be classified as defiant,” said McClellan.
Crawley brought this into his own classroom when he noticed female students were being left out in his law class. After repeatedly presenting examples in class of male alumni who found careers in the legal profession, Crawley realized he was denying black girls the chance to see themselves in the field.
“We were able to identify police officers and lawyers and even judges that are female that came from Douglass,” he said. “We’ve got to be sensitive to the fact that we need to build the same type of support system for females that are trying to achieve, in the same way we do for male students.”