By Shanda Glover
I went to high school in Meridian, located in southern Idaho. It was a pretty big school, however, most high schools in Idaho lack diversity, and my school was no exception. My school was dominantly white, with a few black students, a few Hispanic students, and maybe six Asian students, myself included.
For the most part, everyone got along well with one another. Our school’s security officer hardly ever got called to handle disputes. His biggest call was to help a student locked out of her car. My school was close because most of us grew up together in the same neighborhood, went to the same elementary school and middle school, and most of us worked together outside of school.
So, when multiple viral videos surfaced last year showing security officers getting in physical confrontations with multiple black female students in Baltimore and South Carolina, I was very much taken aback.
In January 2015, a viral video surfaced showing a school police officer physically confronting three middle school students. The girls who were involved had to go to the hospital, and after, transferred to different schools. The officer involved was placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation. Then, in October 2015, another viral video showed a school police officer in South Carolina body slamming a black female student in the middle of the student’s class.
These videos are showing a growing problem. With reports stating there have been at least 29 similar incidents in the United States since 2010 in which school-based police officers used unnecessary force against students.
And it is important to try to understand why there is a big distinction on how black female students receive discipline compared to other students.
Black femininity is often understood through narrow stereotypes about black women and girls as hypersexual, sassy, conniving, or loud. These stereotypes are often used in novels, films, and television. By coming to terms with these stereotypes, we are forced to confront the victimization, exploitation and discrimination that occur in their lives. Society can ultimately develop a critical response to the oppression that these girls experience inside and outside the classroom.
Columbia University law professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw and her associates, Priscilla Ocen and Jyoti Nanda, set out to explain this distinction in their study, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected. According to Crenshaw the inspiration for this study “started a conversation with formerly incarcerated women, advocates, lawyers and service providers about the conditions that resulted in so many poor life outcomes for black girls and women.”
Their study focused on data gathered from public schools in Boston and New York City. They found that girls of color, and especially black girls, are more likely to receive harsher and more frequent discipline than their fellow white students.
Furthermore, they were more likely to be suspended than their white female peers.
In an interview with NPR, Crenshaw highlights the importance of studies like hers in working to stop these disparities. She states, “the first and most important thing we can all do is to recognize that there is a problem. All too often, girls are ignored because their challenges aren’t thought to be as serious as those faced by boys.”
A New York Times article, published late last year, examined the Office of Civil Rights and their data on race, gender, and school discipline. According to that story, interracial disparities exist as well. “Researchers say that within minority groups, darker-skinned girls are disciplined more harshly than light-skinned ones.” But the difference in how white and black girls are disciplined often isn’t just about who has the money to buy their way out of harsh punishment and who doesn’t. Making a decision about how to discipline a student is subjective, so biases around race and gender creep into the decisions educators have to make every day.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Women’s Law Center have organized a congressional briefing on improving educational outcomes for black girls, including how to reform zero-tolerance discipline policies to avoid school pushout. This means students who have left their schools before graduation, through encouragement of the school. Often, pushout is recognized through marginalized communities of color, where students of color receive little accommodations or harsh disciplinary punishments compared to their peers.
Families, community leaders and school leaders must come together to create an open atmosphere that allows the discussion to address the challenges facing black girls and other girls of color to continue. Our youth must know that we value their experiences, and that we are actively involved in creating policies and innovative programs that promote their well-being.