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November 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 3

Protecting Black Girls

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Classroom Management
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In March, when 6-year-old Madisyn Moore took candy from her teacher's desk, this black girl was handcuffed and placed under the stairs to "teach her a lesson" (Roussi, 2016). Last fall, a sheriff's deputy in South Carolina violently threw a black high school girl to the floor and dragged her across the classroom. Although the officer was fired, the girl and her classmate who videotaped the encounter were arrested for violating the controversial "disturbing schools" law (McLeod, 2015). This law prohibits loitering on campus and states that students are not "to interfere with or disturb in any way" other students or teachers in schools. Failure to comply may result in a misdemeanor offense punishable by fine or incarceration (South Carolina Municipal Code, 1979).
According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (2016), black girls, who make up 8 percent of K–12 students nationwide, are overrepresented among students who face discipline that excludes or criminalizes them. Fourteen percent of black girls have received one or more out-of-school suspensions. They are the only group of girls among the various subgroups of students who are overrepresented in suspensions. This issue affects even the youngest: Black girls constitute 20 percent of girls enrolled in public preschool in the United States, but 54 percent of all preschool girls who have received an out-of-school suspension.
Black girls were the only group of girls to be overrepresented in all categories for which data on school discipline were collected in the 2011–2012 academic year: For instance, black girls represent 31 percent of girls in public schools who were referred to law enforcement as part of school discipline and 34 percent of all girls who were subjected to school-based arrest (U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2014).

Why Are Black Girls Pushed Out?

Black girls are disciplined through exclusion for a host of reasons—many associated with the increasingly punitive responses to negative student behavior and the absence of alternatives to exclusionary discipline. Like other girls, black girls experience discipline as a result of conflict on campus. However, they're subjected to a set of conditions that make them uniquely vulnerable to academic marginalization and a phenomenon I call school to confinement pathways—the policies, practices, and prevailing attitudes in educational institutions that lead to contact between youth and the juvenile and criminal legal systems.
Black girls who are at risk of school pushout have disproportionately experienced race- and gender-based oppressions, including sexual victimization, violence, poor student-teacher relationships, and biases that affect how policies like dress codes are enforced. In addition, a legacy of slavery and segregation has planted in the public consciousness a misrepresentation of black femininity.
Black feminine expression is often understood in the context of stereotypes of black girls as loud, sassy, hypersexual, or combative. What's less visible in our discourse and public consciousness is black girls' increased risk of exposure to violence. Compounding the historical trauma that affects these girls' mental and physical health (Akbar, 1996) is the lived reality that black females disproportionately are raped (at 21.2 percent) and are subjected to other forms of sexual violence (38.2 percent) (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2011). More than 90 percent of girls who are in contact with the juvenile legal system—who are disproportionately of African descent and also those most at risk of school pushout—have documented histories of physical or sexual abuse (Smith, Leve, & Chamberlain, 2006). The two leading causes of death among black girls ages 15–19 are unintentional injuries (25.5 percent) and homicide (17.3 percent) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013).

The Trauma We Don't See

The issue of black female students and discipline is fraught with problematic communication between students and adults. Educators, school leaders, and other adults working to address student safety must understand the centrality of trauma and the conditions that affect black girls' actions, sometimes causing others to read their behavior as aggressive and dangerous when it is not so. People who have experienced or witnessed abuse and violence commonly experience post-traumatic stress disorder and other behavioral challenges that can have an impact on learning and relationship building (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2016). Black girls who face harsh school discipline are often struggling to overcome multiple forms of victimization as well as poverty. Yet we dismiss their responses to those oppressions as combative, angry behavior, rather than as symptoms of trauma.
Black girls have described to me scenarios where educators—particularly in schools with an extraordinary emphasis on discipline—told them they were "annoying" or disruptive when they raised their hands to ask questions. For example, 17-year-old Mecca described how quickly being inquisitive can escalate to being pushed out.
Teachers want to just give you work when you come in: "Oh, do this work, stop talking" … And when I finish the work, I have nothing to do, and [they're] telling me to stop talking! … And now you're focused on discipline. Then I'm sent out of class. They need to focus on teaching the kids.
Mecca, a foster child, had experienced contact with the juvenile legal system, contact that involved being placed in a secure detention facility. In interactions like this one, she was triggered by the punitive nature of her learning environment and by teachers failing to establish a meaningful relationship with her. Many girls whom I have encountered show similar triggers.
School administrators in high-poverty areas tend to see "zero-tolerance" and punitive responses as the best way to curb negative student behavior (Losen & Gillespie, 2012). There's little attention to developing a continuum of responses, including restorative and healing practices that allow young people to coconstruct responses to situations in which they have harmed or been harmed.
We can shift this paradigm. Education is a critical protective factor against involvement with the criminal and juvenile legal systems, and schools can be powerful agents in the successful life trajectories of black students. But safety cannot be implemented; it must be coconstructed. Schools can operate in ways that respond better to the needs of black girls by intentionally creating healing-informed learning spaces.
I believe the overwhelming majority of us enter the field of education because we love children and believe in their promise. However, I also believe that we all live with unconscious biases that inform how we read students' behaviors or interpret their language, mannerisms, and even speech volume—whether these biases align with our professed beliefs or not.
If educators want to collectively examine the policies, institutions, and systems that push black girls away from school—using a race- and gender-conscious lens—we should ask these questions:
  1. What assumptions are we making about the conditions of black girls?
  2. How might black girls be uniquely affected by school and other disciplinary policies?
  3. Are our systems and policies (such as those related to dress code, discipline referrals, or eligibility for participation in sports or extracurricular activities) creating an environment that is conducive to the healthy development of black girls?
Asking these questions keeps us from ignoring black girls' needs in policy decisions. By developing culturally competent, gender-responsive tools—like decision-making instruments or protocols that help us respond equitably to students—we can ensure that we develop the skill sets that black female learners need to participate in developing a just society. Toward that goal, I suggest we invest resources in three specific areas—immediately.

Three Ways to Respond More Equitably

Healing-Informed Learning Spaces

A crucial component of developing healthy, gender-responsive learning environments is recognizing the centrality of trauma as we respond to student behavior. Healing-informed learning spaces strive to be "safe spaces" that protect students—and educators—from retraumatization. Safety in this context is defined by an absence of prejudice or judgment and an emphasis on developing positive relationships among black girls, their teachers, and their peers. Okonofua, Pauresku, and Walton (2016) found that when educators employed empathic discipline (talking with a student) rather than punitive discipline (threatening the student or referring her to an administrator), suspension rates for black and Latina girls were reduced by as much as 75 percent. Relationships matter.
To construct healing-informed classrooms, educators must question—and counter—any internalized negative ideas about black girls' ability and identities. We must develop non-punitive interventions that support student accountability when rule-breaking occurs, including restorative and transformative interventions centered on addressing the root causes of conflict or misbehavior.
We can begin creating healthy spaces by reviewing and revising codes of conduct that discriminate against black girls, such as policies that forbid hairstyles associated with African Diasporic cultures like Afros, cornrows, or other braids. Early in each class or semester, discuss and collectively establish agreements with your students so they feel they've been respectfully included in creating the culture. Talk about how you want to engage with students in your classroom and discuss with students how they want to engage with one another. If there's a disagreement, how should it be handled? What does respect look like? How should the class respond if someone is being disruptive? Be sure to encourage and include the voices of girls (black girls and others) who might otherwise remain quiet in these discussions; their voices matter here. Provide ways to answer anonymously or one-on-one.
For girls recovering from trauma, the responses available in schools should include play therapy and cognitive-behavioral interventions, such as stress management techniques that support readiness to learn.

Unbiased Curriculums

Using culturally diverse, gender-inclusive curriculums that integrate the arts is crucial for engaging students of color, particularly girls, and developing relationships with them. Shared learning about cultures can facilitate empathy among educators.
Include historical narratives, images, and examples that reflect the cultural norms of the learners in the classroom. Take special care not to engage or reinforce negative stereotypes often associated with students or communities of color in these examples. For example, it's important that black girls—as well as all other students—imagine "LaKeisha" as a doctor in a math word problem, and that they understand the role of African American girls like Linda Brown and Claudette Colvin in shaping the nation's discourses on desegregation and equity in education.
A culturally responsive pedagogy isn't only about "naming" or locating an instructive experience in a racially identifiable context. It's also about consistently using teaching methods that uplift the oral and presentational traditions dominant in African Diasporic cultures, such as storytelling and the arts.

Guidance on College and Career Pathways

Girls at risk of school pushout are often struggling to overcome poverty and exploitation that render them vulnerable to participation in underground economies. I've found that black girls who have faced school pushout and criminalization understand the value of a good education in securing high-quality employment and life outcomes. Our challenge is to meet them where they are along the continuum of job and career preparation. Let's nurture these girls' hope by
  1. ▪ Engaging them actively in leading and learning in schools.
  2. ▪ Providing information about internships, financial aid, and programs for students who are among the first in their families to attend college.
  3. ▪ Bringing in speakers who show them a variety of career and college options. This helps girls connect what they're learning in the classroom with skills required for the workplace.

Leading with Love

Ultimately, the extent to which we engage young people in coconstructing safe learning environments will determine the success of efforts to reduce criminalization and school pushout. As we establish such environments through empathy, equity, and dialogue, we can use classroom management strategies that don't result in exclusion or signal to a student that she is disposable and unwanted in school.
When we push black girls away from school, we increase the likelihood that they will experience harm. In the vast majority of school districts, educators' fear of violence from students who show disruptive behaviors is greater than the actual violence, if any, students demonstrate. To develop a pedagogy through which our girls learn more than just how to behave in the presence of adults, we must lead—and teach—with love.

Akbar, N. (1996). Breaking the chains of psychological slavery. Tallahassee, FL: Mind Productions.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Leading causes of death by age group, black females-United States, 2013. Atlanta: Author. Retrieved from

Losen, D., & Gillespie, J. (2012) Opportunities suspended: The disparate impact of disciplinary exclusion from school. Los Angeles: Center for Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project.

McLeod, H. (2015, October 30). "Disturbing schools" law criticized after South Carolina student's arrest. Retrieved from Reuters at

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). National intimate partner and sexual violence survey, 2010 summary report. Atlanta: Author.

Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D. & Walton, G. M. (2016). Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(19), 5221–5226.

Roussi, A. (2016, March 21). Six-year-old girl in Chicago handcuffed for allegedly stealing candy from a teacher [blog post]. Retrieved from Salon at

Smith, D. K., Leve, L. D., & Chamberlain, P. (2006). Adolescent girls' offending and health-risking sexual behavior: The predictive role of trauma. Child Maltreatment, 11(4), 346–353.

South Carolina Municipal Code. (1979). Disturbing Schools. Section 2–2036.

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2014). Civil rights data collection, 2011–12. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2016). 2013–2014 civil rights data collection: First look. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD. (2016). PTSD in children and adolescents (data updated February 23, 2016). Retrieved from

End Notes

1 The pervasive nature of rape culturepresents risks for other women and girlsas well: 20.5 percent of white femalesexperience rape and 46.9 percent experienceother forms of sexual violence;13.6 percent of Latinas experience rapeand 35.6 percent experience other formsof sexual violence. Native American girlsexperience rape and sexual violence atthe highest rates (27.5 percent have beenraped and 55 percent have experiencedother sexual assault). (National Center forInjury Prevention and Control, 2011).

2 Two valuable resources for culturally responsive teaching are Zaretta Hammond's Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (Corwin, 2014) and Christopher Emdin's For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y'all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (Beacon Press, 2016).

Monique W. Morris, EdD, is an award-winning author and social justice scholar focused on education, civil rights, and juvenile and criminal justice. She is the president and CEO of Grantmakers for Girls of Color and the founder and board chair of the National Black Women's Justice Institute. She has written and lectured widely on research, policies, and practices associated with improving juvenile/criminal justice, educational, and socioeconomic conditions for girls and women of color.

Morris is an executive producer and cowriter of the documentary Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, which is based on two of her books: Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls and Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.

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