'Black Girls Matter': Report Exposes Systemic Oppression of Often-Ignored Groups

Black girls face harsher punishments than their white counterparts, while receiving less attention from federal reform programs, a new report finds. (Photo: Africa Renewal/flickr/cc)

'Black Girls Matter': Report Exposes Systemic Oppression of Often-Ignored Groups

Girls of color routinely punished by institutions and ignored by school-to-prison pipeline reformers, report finds

Girls of color regularly face harsher school punishments than their white counterparts, while simultaneously being ignored by legislative and community efforts to close the school-to-prison pipeline, despite the proven negative impacts of zero-tolerance discipline which exposes minority girls to expulsion, violence, and arrest, a new study released Wednesday has found.

Punitive disciplinary policies "negatively impact Black girls and other girls of color. Yet much of the existing research literature excludes girls from the analysis, leading many stakeholders to infer that girls of color are not also at risk," according to the report, titled Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.

Published by the African American Policy Forum jointly with Columbia University, the report seeks to "increase awareness of the gendered consequences of disciplinary and push-out policies for girls of color, and, in particular, Black girls."

"As public concern mounts for the needs of men and boys of color through initiatives like the White House's My Brother's Keeper, we must challenge the assumption that the lives of girls and women--who are often left out of the national conversation--are not also at risk," said lead author Kimberle Crenshaw.

Citing data from the U.S. Department of Education, the report found that black girls were suspended six times more than white girls on national average in the 2011-2012 school year, while black boys were suspended three times more than white boys.

In some cities, those figures rose even more, with suspensions for black girls in Boston 11 times higher than white girls, and 10 times higher in New York. Overall, 12 percent of black girls were suspended during that year. In New York, 90 percent of all girls expelled from school were black.

Girls in zero-tolerance schools described an environment in which punishment is prioritized over education.

"The teachers don't care at all," one participant told the researchers. "They do sweep-ups in the hallway. If they see you in the hallway with no pass, you've got to leave automatically. They do it every day. Literally half of the school gets kicked out by the end of the day."

These statistics feed into another disturbing trend, which finds that black girls are the fastest-growing population in the juvenile justice system. Likewise, as Nita Chaudhary and Rashad Robinson reported in January, black women are the fastest-growing population in adult prisons.

In addition to exposing young girls of color to harsher punishments more often and at an earlier age, their punitive treatment in school risks setting them on a path to "low-wage work, unemployment, and incarceration," the report states. Girls are more likely to feel unsafe at schools with security personnel on campus--and are thus more likely to stop attending.

"They got to search you," one participant said of the security rituals necessary to enter their campus. "It feels like you're in jail. It's like they treat you like animals, because they think that's where you're going to end up."

Moreover, punitive environments are unlikely still to curb sexual harassment against female students; in many cases, girls who defended themselves against harassers in class were punished for fighting. A high incidence of interpersonal violence also plagues many minority girls, which often further disrupts their school experience, according to interviews with teachers, family members, and other stakeholders.

"We've had several instances where girls were followed to school by strange men in a car, and they come to school and they are terrified," one stakeholder told the researchers. "Our girls are a lot more vulnerable, and people do target them. And so they are often approached and solicited and, you know, all sorts of things they shouldn't have to endure."

Yet their struggles "rarely receive the full attention of researchers, advocates, policy makers, and funders," the report states. "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."

The only way forward is to actively acknowledge these setbacks and work to reform them, the authors conclude. That includes expanding policy research and advocacy in their interest; changing security protocols on campus to ensure that girls are protected, rather than victimized; and willing the public and lawmakers alike to "address the challenges facing black girls and other girls of color through elevating their experiences and engaging stakeholders to become actively involved in their welfare."

There is no one system that is solely at fault for leaving minority girls by the wayside, the report concludes--rather, it is all of them. "This silence about at-risk girls is multidimensional and cross-institutional," the authors state. "If the challenges facing girls of color are to be addressed, then research and policy frameworks must move beyond the notion that all of the youth of color who are in crisis are boys, and that the concerns of white girls are indistinguishable from those of girls of color."

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