Girls for Gender Equity launched School Girls Deserve in late October. The intergenerational campaign called on the Department of Education to create safer, more inclusive learning environments for the city’s 1.1 million public school students, asking the DOE to increase the investment in Title IX resources and to invest in the creation of a citywide school dress code that celebrates the diverse racial, religious and gender expression found among our youth. GGE wants the DOE to replace the poor sexual harassment policies that target vulnerable student populations.

According to the participatory action research project, contemporaneous DOE dress code policies fail students by policing body type and gender expression, implying that victims of sexual assault and harassment could have prevented their traumatic experiences by wearing different clothing and targeting student populations that are subject to disparities in school discipline. The victims of this neglect are girls, trans and gender non-conforming youth of color who face rape and sexual harassment in schools.

“Over the last eight to nine years is when we really saw an increase of girls of color, Black girls in particular, coming to us to say that they feel discriminated against in school, that these practices are happening and that they are not even getting a chance to have mediation around what it is they did or said,” said Joanne N. Smith, president and CEO of GGE. “When it comes to zero tolerance policies, policies that say regardless of what the altercation is about, both students or all students involved are going to be punished. It’s an institutional practice that can change. The institutional practice around mediation and restorative justice and how students are spoken with when an issue happens.”

“As an individual who identifies as a woman of color, I feel like the education system has found multiple ways to push me out of the community and isolate me and make me feel discouraged to participate,” said, Haleema, 11th-grader from Queens, in the participatory action research findings.

More than 40 percent of girls of color in NYC are denied the essential support, infrastructure and reinforcement they need to finish high school. Instead of entering an environment that can foster their growth, the students are being scanned and searched every day before entering school.

“Some students have been born into being policed, criminalization and a mentality that their body isn’t theirs to be trusted, or that this is what it takes for you to be trusted,” said Smith. “This has to be interrupted.”

Smith explained that it is hard for the youth of color, especially the Black girls, to be heard when they are always seen as angry, and therefore their trauma isn’t accounted for. Simple concerns from staff such as “Did she eat today?” “Does she have cramps?” “Is there anything happening at home?” can make a huge difference.

Smith found that none of these questions are ever asked of an 11- or 12-year-old person, which ignores the fact that they are human beings, too, within the school environment. The authority figures in these institutions have gotten stuck in the mindset that these young girls are always up to no good.

NYC has the fifth largest police presence in the nation in our public schools. More than 5,000 police officers occupy schools for students mostly in K to 12, whereas only approximately 2,500 guidance counselors and social workers are in the schools. This disparity makes it hard for these students to turn to anyone for help.