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Pushed out, overpoliced and underprotected

It's long been known that black students are suspended or expelled from school at rates far higher than their white counterparts and that these disparities can have far-reaching consequences on their lives. Less well known, however, is that racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions are even greater for girls than for boys. A recent report by researchers at Columbia University Law School that examined suspension rates in the public schools of Boston and New York found that black girls there were six times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls and that in some cases their suspension rates actually exceeded those for black boys.

Yet such disparities by gender as well as race have not figured prominently research and advocacy around school achievement or in efforts specifically aimed at reducing the disparate impact of school discipline policies by gender as well as race. In recent years Maryland has sought to address the problem by reducing the overall number of out-of-school suspensions, but the Columbia study suggests a more targeted strategy is needed to eliminate the disproportionate number of black girls whose lives are disrupted or derailed by school discipline policies.

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The report, "Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected," found that although males are suspended in greater numbers than females overall, the racial disparity in suspensions for girls in the schools researchers examined was almost double that for boys. Black boys were suspended a little more than three times as often as their white male peers, but black girls were suspended six times as often as their white counterparts. In the year covered by the report, researchers found only 2 percent of white females were subjected to out-of-school suspensions, compared to 12 percent of black girls.

The same situation applied to expulsions, where black girls are at far greater risk of being "pushed out" of school than white girls. In New York, for example, 90 percent of all the girls expelled from school were black during a year in which no white girls were expelled. In Boston, 63 percent of the girls expelled were black and virtually no white female students were kicked out. These data again suggest that racial disparities in school disciplinary policies may fall even more heavily on girls than on boys.

Students who are suspended or expelled are at greater risk for dropping out of school, and that in turn puts them at greater risk of coming into contact with the juvenile justice system. The Columbia researchers' report suggested that while black boys are more likely to be harshly punished than their white peers, such disparities in sentencing are even greater for black girls, who are the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system.

Moreover, the long-term consequences of dropping out entail severe economic consequences for girls of all races. According to the National Women's Law Center, the income gap between dropouts and high school graduates is greater for women than it is for men, and girls' failure to graduate high school puts them on a pathway to low-wage work, unemployment and incarceration. The situation is especially harmful to black girls and young women given the prevalence of single-wage-earning African-American families headed by women.

To their credit, Maryland officials have begun to address such issues. The overall gap in achievement levels and school disciplinary policies along racial and gender lines is somewhat smaller here than the national average, but black girls are still suspended or expelled far more often than their white peers for nonviolent offenses that don't threaten school safety. The state board of education has developed guidelines encouraging all schools to adopt disciplinary policies that keep students in school wherever possible.

But acknowledging the scope of the problem is the necessary first step toward understanding and reversing the factors that contribute to disparate treatment. The Columbia study should serve as a wake-up call that black girls are facing significant obstacles to school achievement and that interventions to help them not only must become a priority but also be tailored to the unique ways that black girls are affected by school disciplinary policies.

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