Why are black girls punished more than their white peers?

<p>Third graders at the Imagine Discovery public charter school take a test.</p>

Third graders at the Imagine Discovery public charter school take a test.

(Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Rather than being known for her intelligence, perseverance or boldness — which many see as beautiful — black girls are often stereotyped as sassy, raucous or promiscuous. Even her natural hair represents an unorthodox beauty that goes against the status quo. This deviation against societal norms and what is defined as “ladylike” can allow for negative interactions between black girls and authority figures like school administrators, teachers and police officers before the girls ever speak a word.

It is no wonder that negative stereotypes associated with black girls help to perpetuate an increased number of police interactions and subsequent arrests, which ultimately leads to disproportionate involvement of black girls in the juvenile justice system. For instance, African American girls tend to receive harsher punishment than white girls. These inequitable disciplinary actions toward black girls by school administrators begin as early as preschool. Nationally, only 20 percent of black girls make up the female preschool population, but they make up 54 percent of female preschoolers receiving out-of-school suspensions.


Suspending kids from school usually only makes their problems worse

During the 2011 to 2012 school year, statistics from the African American Policy Forum showed remarkable disproportionality in the rates of expulsion between black and white girls. In Boston and New York, over 62 percent of all the girls expelled were black. No white girls received an expulsion during that year. Similarly, the suspension rates of black girls to white girls were also staggering. Compared to their white peers, black girls received suspensions at 12 times the rate in Boston and 10 times the rate in New York. These disciplinary outcomes resulted from the subjective attitudes of the teachers, the lack of responsiveness from the teachers toward sexual harassment, and the violation of expected gender norms by black female students.

Unfortunately, Maryland does not provide similarly disaggregated data, so it is hard to analyze exactly how students here fare. However, it is unlikely the state is far from the national average — which, according to the National Women’s Law Center in 2016, showed that black girls were likely to be suspended at 4.3 times the rate of their white peers.


Suspending or expelling very young children for disciplinary reasons is usually counterproductive and often discriminatory

The unfair treatment toward African American girls reinforces the intersectionality between race and gender inequality. The system is more inclined to criminalize black girls for sex-related offenses. They have also been penalized more and receive harsher punishment than boys for fighting in school. When black girls experience punitive practices in school, many of them are at risk of being funneled through the school-to-prison pipeline. Once they are on this trajectory — as with boys of color — it is difficult for them to leave the system.

The juvenile justice system also reinforces gender and racial bias. The report, Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Girls' Sentencing in the Juvenile Justice System, states that black girls receive more severe punishment “even after taking into account the seriousness of the offense, prior record, and age.”

Involvement in the juvenile justice system can promote adverse outcomes due to the lack of services and supports. In juvenile justice facilities, findings showed that youth receive less than 20 hours a week of schooling. Youth involved in the juvenile justice system are already at risk for low academic achievement. Also, the lack of job training, mental health services, and substance abuse treatments provided to black girls increase their chances of recidivism. The likelihood of recurrence is also increased upon release from jail because many of them return to the same under-resourced neighborhoods.

Black girls in the Baltimore City 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.

Instead of enforcing strict and punitive disciplinary responses, schools should implement restorative practices and conflict resolution strategies. Schools should focus on early intervention and prevention to help reduce the number of black girls entering the school-to-prison pipeline. One approach is the Positive Youth Development (PYD) model. This holistic model analyzes a child’s protective factors, which includes family support, church involvement, community engagement, healthy relationships, and individual strengths and abilities. Protective factors help to minimize risk and promote positive outcomes. The PYD model aims to enhance a child’s overall well-being and empower youth to achieve their potential.

Black girls are born into a society that seeks to box them into a frame that disadvantages them. To disadvantage one means to disadvantage us all. It robs Maryland of ever seeing the genius, courage, and resilience that these girls can offer. It is time we change our approach. Our families, neighborhoods, and our future are depending on it.

Javonna Walker is an education and youth justice fellow at Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore City (Twitter: @MarylandACY).

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