Judging by the statistics, the national focus on the troubled plight of Black boys with initiatives like President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” may be missing a real crisis that’s hidden in plain sight: Black girls are treated even more harshly in American schools than Black boys when compared to their white counterparts—leading to them now being the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system.
The numbers are jarring: Black girls across the country were suspended six times more often than white girls, compared to Black boys being suspended three times more often than white boys, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s analysis of the 2011-2012 school year.
Only 2 percent of white females were subjected to exclusionary suspensions, compared to 12 percent of Black girls.
Because males are suspended in greater numbers than females, the harsh treatment of Black boys tends to draw all the attention. But a new report by the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School called “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected” shines a spotlight on Black girls in public school, playing particular attention to what happens to them in the New York City and Boston school systems.
The report doesn’t appear to be intended to slight the attention currently being paid to Black boys, but rather to suggest that Black girls are just as vulnerable to discrimination and mistreatment in America’s school. In fact, in some cases they may be more vulnerable. As noted by the report’s author, Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (with Priscilla Ocen and Jyoti Nanda), race may actually be a more significant factor for females than it is for males.
“This silence about at-risk girls is multidimensional and cross-institutional,” wrote the report’s authors. “The risks that Black and other girls of color confront rarely receive the full attention of researchers, advocates, policy makers, and funders. As a result, many educators, activists, and community members remain underinformed about the consequences of punitive school policies on girls as well as the distinctly gendered dynamics of zero-tolerance environments that limit their educational achievements.”
For instance, the researchers used girls’ responses in focus groups to conclude that the discomfort that some Black girls feel with the increased levels of law enforcement and security personnel, including passing through metal detectors, found in most of their schools was so great that they “were dissuaded from coming to school at all. ”
In addition, the failure of schools to intervene in situations involving the sexual harassment and bullying of girls contributes to their insecurity at school. Zero-tolerance discipline policies that penalize equally any student involved in an incident winds up penalizing girls for defending themselves against the harassment and bullying.
“The challenge is real. Black girls receive more severe sentences when they enter the juvenile justice system than do members of any other group of girls, and they are also the fastest growing population in the system,” the authors wrote. “Despite these troubling trends, there is very little research highlighting the short and long term effects of overdiscipline and pushout on girls of color.”
In comparing the disciplinary numbers of Black girls and white girls in New York and Boston, the researchers were challenged to come up with a ratio for expulsions in both cities because no white girls had been expelled.
“In New York City during the 2011–2012 year, ninety percent of all the girls subjected to expulsion were Black,” they wrote. “No white girls were expelled, and thus, no ratio can be calculated; but the magnitude of the disparity can be captured by simply imagining that one white girl had been expelled. Were that the case, the ratio would be 53:1.”
The authors use several individual stories to highlight how ridiculous the systems’s treatment of Black girls can be. For example, a 12-year-old Black girl at a Georgia middle school faced expulsion and criminal charges after writing “hi” on a locker room wall of her Georgia middle school. In Detroit, an honors student was suspended for her entire senior year for accidentally bringing a pocketknife to a football game.
“If this is a problem of racial disparity, not only should girls not be excluded from that conversation, they should be front and center because something is happening to Black girls that actually is more of a risk factor than what’s happening to boys,” lead author Crenshaw, the lead author, said.
Villanova University researchers in 2013 chronicled how Black girls with darker skin were three times more likely to be suspended than girls with lighter skin, showing the deep-seated damage that colorism and white supremacy have done to school administrators.
Crenshaw said she found both high-achieving and low-achieving girls similarly affected by the harsh environment.
“These were things that when I went to school would happen—girls getting into fights and having beefs—[but] never led to incarceration,” she said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Now it does.”