Black students are disproportionately reprimanded in the education system. This is primarily seen in elementary, middle school and high school students (K-12), according to a 2018 report by the United States Government Accountability Office. Although Black boys are included in the overrepresented group of students being punished, research reflects that Black girls are punished and criminalized at an alarming rate that is higher than non-Black girls for school, including suspensions and expulsions.
In 2017-2018, “Black girls were the only group across all races/ethnicities for girls where a disparity was observed. Black girls received in-school suspensions (11.2%) and out-of-school suspensions (13.3%) at rates almost two times their share of total student enrollment (7.4%),” the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights said in a report from 2021.
Racial and gender stereotypes contribute to the mistreatment that Black girls receive. Some of this is rooted in the idea that adults, such as teachers, view Black girls as being “less innocent” and “more adult-like” than their white counterparts. This may lead to adults thinking that Black girls don’t need as much protection or nurturing, Erin Killeen said in “The Increased Criminalization of African American Girls.”
“Such comments demonstrate that stereotypes of Black girls, interpreted as ‘loud,’ are imbued with adult-like aspirations, and perceived, in turn, as a threat,” Rebecca Epstein, Jamila J. Blake and Thalia González said in a report published by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.
Jamelia Harris, a Robert Curvin Postdoctoral Fellow at the Joseph C. Cornwall Center at Rutgers University-Newark, works with The Concrete Rose Project. This is a high school after-school research inquiry group. In this group, Harris gets the girls to discern the potential root causes behind the patterns of disproportionality facing them and Black girls in high school generally.
Harris explores the role of intersectional violence and education in the lives of Black girls in urban communities. For instance, she had done and analyzed a lot of research concentrated on the treatment of Black girls in the education system and on ways in which racial and gender stereotyping have contributed to the punishment of Black girls.
Harris said that Black girls get written up for things such as talking back, having an attitude, inappropriate dress and emotional expression. These are some of the reasons that girls from The Concrete Rose Project have said they experienced discipline.
Another reason why Black girls may be targeted is due to a cultural mismatch between educators and Black girl students. The high school that the girls from The Concrete Rose Project attended had a majority Black and Latinx population, but most of the teachers were white. A lack of understanding or familiarity of Black girls by the white teachers caused these girls to feel they were being perceived as ghetto or inferior.
“Black girls were being punished for behaviors that in many ways if a white girl demonstrated them, would be celebrated as qualities of leadership like defending their points of view,” Harris said.
She added that the high school the girls from the research group went to had one of the highest rates of suspension for Black girls in the state of California at about 19%. However, Black girls in New York City are experiencing something similar.
“Outside of NYC, schools were 6.1 times more likely to suspend Black female students than their white peers, and in NYC the school district was 8.6 times more likely to suspend Black female students than their white female peers,” an article by Tiffany Lankes from the Education Trust-New York, a research and advocacy group, said.
More awareness of what Black girls are experiencing in schools is growing. Harris said that Black girls are the growing population in the juvenile justice system. “There is a pattern of criminalization which doesn’t receive as much visibility as it does when it’s happening to Black boys and men,” Harris said.
Not only does the treatment of Black girls affect the likelihood that they could end up in jail, but it has other serious consequences. Black girls may end up having economic instability, mental health issues, compromised academic success and become afraid to speak their minds. The silence is to prevent contradicting those in positions of power.
“We see that many of the ways that Black girls are culturally socialized to navigate the realities of white supremacist heteropatriarchy society are condemned in schools through discipline policies,” Harris said.
To help minimize or eliminate the punishment that Black girls receive, educators can work on building better relationships to improve the learning environment. Harris said that she has a consulting agency where she partners with educators and school districts across the country to address their biases. She engages them in self-reflection about positionality and suggests opportunities they can take advantage of to uplift and spotlight Black girls.
“I encourage educators to prioritize relationships and compassion over punishment,” she said.