A collage of drawings of gray and yellow school busses. There are also three drawings of Black girls.


Why Do We Criminalize Black Schoolgirls?

Two-week-long suspensions for minor dress-code violations have set Black girls up for a life of punishment. Why don't we hear more about this in school-to-prison pipeline debates?

This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members.  We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?

It was 1964, and 13-year-old Susan Burton was a student at John Adams Junior High in Los Angeles. She wore a royal blue dress to school one day, and because she’d recently had a growth spurt, the skirt was a bit shorter than when she’d last worn it. Her school required girls’ skirts to reach their seats when kneeling, and because Burton’s was about an inch too short, she was kicked out of class and suspended from school for two full weeks.

“I never seemed to be able to catch back up with math,” she says. “Even though I was an excellent student, we were running through fractions and I just fell behind. People had to notice that I was behind, that this student had dropped pace. But nobody helped me, and I kind of got discouraged with school…It was just a really harsh punishment.”

It was a harsh punishment, and it wouldn’t be the last time Burton was criminalized and excluded from her community for something outside her control.

In the 50-plus years since Burton’s suspension, not much has changed for black girls in America. In fact, while black girls make up about 8 percent of students enrolled in K-12 schools in the U.S., a 2014 report from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that they represent 12 percent of suspensions; that’s compared to just 2 percent for white girls and 6 percent for white boys.

Just this past spring, for instance, a high school senior in North Carolina, identified only as Summer, was suspended for two weeks and barred from attending her graduation, all because she wore a wide-neck top to school that exposed part of her shoulders.

When her principal approached to tell her she was in violation of the school’s dress code, she initially insisted that her shirt was just fine, but soon borrowed a friend’s jacket to resolve the matter. That wasn’t good enough for the principal, though — the administrator called a school resource officer (i.e. a school cop), and Summer was nearly arrested.

“[The school resource officer] was within five feet of me, he had his hand on his gun,” she told local news station WCNC. “It’s just sad because I worked so hard for four years to walk across that stage. We have drug dealers walking across that stage, we have sex offenders walking across that stage and then the 4.4 [GPA] student who showed her shoulders can’t.”

This “pushout,” as author and co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute Monique Morris refers to this phenomenon of black girls receiving high levels of exclusionary punishment, disrupts girls’ education and sets them on a path to failure. It’s part of the larger school-to-prison pipeline trend the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, including the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League, have been documenting, and fighting against, for years. The ACLU describes this trend as a funneling out of children from public school to prison. “’Zero-tolerance’ policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in schools lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school,” the ACLU school-to-prison pipeline web page reads. “Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.”

Much attention has been paid to the effect of the school-to-prison pipeline on boys of color, and the criminalization of African American men more broadly. Indeed, the Obama administration set up the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative — with no equivalent for girls — to help ensure boys of color receive a full education and guidance entering the workplace. Media coverage of police violence against people of color also tends to focus more on male victims, despite the fact that the African American Policy Forum released a report, entitled, “Say Her Name,” detailing the ways in which black female victims of police violence are left out of narratives, to the detriment of social justice movements.

While initiatives to protect boys of color and ensure they receive a quality education are critical, girls surely deserve the same opportunities. As Morris explains, when girls aren’t in school, they’re more vulnerable — to underground economies, to exploitation, to abuse. And too often, that vulnerability leads to contact with the juvenile justice system, setting them up for a lifetime of criminalization.

In her memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, Burton writes that her life changed during her two-week suspension.

“I made my way to the street,” she writes. “There, I discovered the kids drumming up trouble. There, I received an instant education of another sort. In those two weeks of my suspension, I learned to smoke. I learned to hang out. I learned how to get with boys — and that I could pick the boys I wanted. I learned to buck authority, and I learned to be defiant.”

Distressed by her school’s failure to support her in math class, Burton realized there was a solution to her problem. “I could decide to stop caring about school,” she writes. “An unthinkable proposition just a couple of months earlier…now I saw things differently. School had failed me.”

She abandoned her studies, instead hanging out in the neighborhood and sneaking out often. After one incident where she disappeared for a couple of days, her mother called the police when she returned home; she was taken into custody and sent to live at a juvenile hall.

Zero-tolerance policies

Again, not much has changed since Burton’s experience in the 1960s. In fact, since the introduction of zero-tolerance policies in U.S. schools in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, which mandated suspensions and expulsions for first offenses and introduced law enforcement to school campuses, the rate of punitive, exclusionary punishment — i.e. suspensions and expulsions — and referrals to law enforcement for black female students has skyrocketed.

These policies emerged around the same time that the War on Drugs was picking up steam, growing out of concerns around “gang-related” activity in schools and drug use among students; the presence of school resource officers increased markedly after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. The policies were meant to bring order back to schools considered out of control, by removing “problem” students from classrooms, but they’ve had a net-negative result for kids of color, especially girls.  

Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, noted in a 2012 report for the African American Policy Forum that between 2002 and 2006, “per-district suspension rates of black girls increased 5.3 percentage points compared to the 1.7 percentage point increase for black boys.” Plus, black girls with disabilities experienced more suspensions than any other group of girls in the nation’s 10 highest-suspending districts.

Pushed out and disengaged from school, as Burton was, or turned over to law enforcement by their schools — as 6-year-old Salecia Johnson was in 2012, after having a tantrum at school and landing, in handcuffs, at the local police station —  black girls in turn face disproportionately high rates of confinement. In 2013, for example, black girls were less than 14 percent of the overall population, but represented 35 percent of all girls in confinement (including group homes, long-term secure facilities, juvenile correctional facilities and boot camps).

For lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender-nonconforming youth, the pathways to confinement are also laid bare: As Morris reports in Pushout, some estimates put the number of queer girls and trans and gender-nonconforming youth in confinement at 40 percent.

Roots of the problem

So how did this all begin? And how is the school-to-prison pipeline different for black girls than for black boys?

Morris explains that stereotypes of black femininity — the mammy, the jezebel, the angry black woman — inform the ways black girls are perceived and judged in school, as do unconscious (and perhaps conscious) biases against black girls, whose behavior is often viewed as being in conflict with the “good” girl (read: white) archetype of femininity.

For her book, Morris conducted focus groups with girls in confinement across the country. They shared stories of getting kicked out of school for minor infractions that, before zero-tolerance policies, might not have resulted in suspension or expulsion. She found that dress codes, for example, are often enforced with a racial bias against black girls, resulting in higher rates of exclusionary punishment.

“In Boston,” Morris says, “girls [have shown up] to school with braided extensions, which are cultural practices [and a part] of natural black hair care, only to receive detention [and suspension] because it violates the school dress code.”

She notes that there are some school districts that actually have written rules against children arriving at school with afros, locs or braids, i.e. natural black hairstyles. “Those [policies],” she says, “are at best culturally incompetent, and at worst intentionally targeting black girls, and boys in some instances.”

Says Morris, “These are ways in which schools are participating in the culture of criminalization beyond whether or not a girl has been arrested or given a citation of some kind.”

During her research, Morris also found that there’s a lesser degree of patience with black girls who are trying to engage in the learning process, noting that their questions are perceived as “defiant” or “disruptive” — they’re seen as bad, “ghetto” girls, in contrast with the “good” white standard of femininity, and they’re kicked out of class for speaking up. She also found that black girls are often told, directly and indirectly, that it’s okay to underperform; they’re not given the support and resources they need to succeed.

“So when we see greater numbers of our girls showing up among children who are told, in various ways, that school is not a place for them, we have to come back and interrogate what we’re doing,” she says.

The Obama administration did make an effort to roll back enforcement of zero-tolerance policies that resulted in higher levels of suspensions and expulsions for children of color, advising school officials in 2014 that referrals to law enforcement and exclusionary punishments should be a last resort for disciplining students.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” said then-Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement.

The administration followed that up with further guidance for schools that have police officers on site, and held a conference on school discipline, even threatening schools with federal civil rights investigations if punishments appeared to be doled out unfairly; it was the first time in the nation’s history that an administration had issued school-discipline guidelines.

The Trump administration has yet to take a stand on school discipline, though it has so far not rescinded Obama-era guidelines on exclusionary punishments. And, for what it’s worth, Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, dissented in a case where judges upheld the decision by a school resource officer to handcuff and arrest a student who had been disrupting class with fake burps, writing that he was “unpersuaded” by the notion that the law permits police officers to arrest students for minor disruptions. However, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos remains mum on the subject, so the future of school discipline is murky.

Students as future criminals

The reality on the ground is another matter. Brittany Brathwaite, lead organizer with Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) in Brooklyn, a group that works to decriminalize schools, among other things, notes that the militarization of schools — including the introduction of metal detectors and school resource officers — has turned schools from learning environments into places where kids are considered potential criminals before they even step foot in the door.

Brathwaite explains that, as part of a recent participatory action research project conducted by GGE, students were asked about the criminalized elements of their school environments, such as metal detectors, cameras and cops on campus. “We came to realize that at least here in New York City, many young people do not know school environments that are not criminalized,” she says.

More than half of the students who participated in the research noted that they’d experienced a metal detector, a school safety officer or another form of surveillance or criminal control at school. And though the students said that those aren’t things they want in their schools, they couldn’t even imagine what an alternative environment would look like; those elements have become a part of the architecture of schools, says Brathwaite, just like chalkboards and desks.

For girls, Brathwaite explains, criminalization most often happens not because they’re assaulting other students or staff, but because they’re “wearing bobby pins in their hair, and that’s being deemed as dangerous…or jewelry, or metal things on their shoe laces.” She notes that many times, students are expected to take off their shoes or jewelry just to go through a metal detector before class.

“School safety agents [are telling students], ‘You’d have to do this if this was the airport.’ [But] schools are not the airport — you’re not flying anywhere! You’re attempting to go to school,” she says. “So these barriers, especially around things like your sneakers or your hair, are racialized and gendered in specific ways that particularly affect girls of color.”

A recent survey by Black Women’s Blueprint found that 60% of black girls in the U.S. have experienced sexual violence by age 18. Many of those traumas go untreated, unnoticed, ignored or dismissed, further complicating the situation at school. Perversely, black girls who have experienced trauma are often criminalized for behaviors resulting from their trauma, such as truancy, running away from home, substance abuse and prostitution, frequently ending up in confinement instead of receiving therapeutic treatment. Indeed, though there is little national data available, regional studies have found that up to 93 percent of girls in confinement have been subjected to sexual abuse in some form, driving home the link between girls’ trauma, behavioral outcomes and criminalization at every turn.

“Instead of people seeing the trauma, they see a girl with a bad attitude,” says Morris. “Instead of exploring the conditions that are facilitating behaviors [e.g. experiencing abuse at home and having to resist, fight back or endure] they’re just written off as defiant and removed from the learning space, which is highly problematic to me given the quality and degree to which education plays a rehabilitative and constructive role in life opportunities.”

Suspended girls become incarcerated women

All of this spills over into black women’s adult lives, of course; trauma and systemic criminalization don’t end just because you turn 18.

Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that black women are arrested at a rate roughly twice that of white women — 113 per 100,000 black women compared to 53 per 100,000 white women. According to the ACLU, black women represent 30 percent of all incarcerated women, though they make up just 13 percent of the overall population.

In most cases, women are convicted for nonviolent drug offenses. Since the “War on Drugs” began in the 1980s, the number of women behind bars has increased 14-fold: from fewer than 8,000 women in prison in 1970 to more than 110,000 in 2014. Experts say in the case of black women, many of these drug offenses are crimes linked to trauma and poverty. That was certainly true for Burton who, after years of contact with law enforcement as a juvenile — not to mention years of sexual abuse — spent about two decades of her adult life circulating in and out of prison “for essentially having a drug habit,” as she explains it. After her second child died at just five years old (hit by the car of a police officer driving through the neighborhood), Burton spiraled into alcoholism and addiction. “I was medicating my grief,” she says.

She was in and out of lockup for about 20 years after that. Following her final stint in prison in the ‘90s, Burton was able to get help for her grief and addictions at a resource center in Santa Monica, California. There was nothing like it in her South L.A. community, though, and she knew that plenty of women coming out of prison would, like her, have no safe place to go upon reentry, increasing the likelihood that they’d end up back behind bars.

So she opened up her home to newly freed women, meeting them at the bus stop after release and offering them a free, safe, drug- and alcohol-free place to stay. Soon after, she started A New Way of Life, a reentry program for women exiting confinement that provides safe housing, help with child reunification, legal services, individual healing and other services.

“Life circumstances become life terrors, and that’s because of the way we respond to them as a society. It’s as if we criminalize trauma,” she says.

The path forward

To be sure, the tides are turning (albeit slowly) in schools nationwide: School boards in Los Angeles and New York have begun phasing out exclusionary punishments for things like “willful defiance.” And schools in L.A., Oakland, Chicago, New Hampshire, Oregon, Maine and other states have formed restorative justice committees to handle misbehavior and interpersonal grievances.

But, Morris says, there’s still more work to be done.

“I really want us, as a society, to reconsider how we’re reading the behavior of young people, particularly black girls who fight, and black girls who are perceived as being loud and talking back,” she says. “It’s not to say that I’m calling for a free-for-all…but I really think it’s important for educators and schools to teach young people how to engage in effective communication by working with them and modeling it together.”



Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.

Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.

But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.

Support Dame Today

Become a member!