How Our Schools Are Failing Black Girls


In a recent study focused on how schools respond to black children with behavioral and social challenges versus how they respond to white children facing the same difficulties, sociologist David Ramey uncovered what many black parents, including me, already know: Black children who exhibit "bad behavior" are more likely to have police intervene than medical professionals. "Black students are more likely to be punished with suspensions, expulsions or referrals to law enforcement," writes the Huffington Post's Rebecca Klein, who spoke directly with Ramey regarding his research, "a phenomenon that helps funnel kids into the criminal justice system." 

This kind of funneling has become known as the school-to-prison pipeline, defined by the American Civil Liberties Union as "the policies and practices that push our nation's schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems," and which reflect "the prioritization of incarceration over education."

Black girls are particularly vulnerable, as they are more likely than any other race of girls (and more likely than white boys) to be suspended and further criminalized. According to the Washington Post, "nationally, 12% of black girls received at least one-in-school suspension, whereas the rate for white girls is 2%, and for white boys it is 6%."

As an educator, I find these studies fascinating. As the mother of a black girl who lives with social and behavioral challenges, I find them frightening. My experiences as the mother of a daughter with special emotional and learning needs has shown me exactly how so many beautiful and brilliant black girls end up without the educational experience they deserve, and instead on their way to our nation's prisons.

Since my daughter was 3 and attending a special preschool attached to the university where I teach, her teachers have told me that her behavior is different from other children. I describe my child as a carefree, flighty and whimsical little girl. Her teachers describe her as a child suffering with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It's true that my daughter has always been very active and a bit impulsive, and that she also has focus issues. I'd hoped she'd grow out of these behaviors; some she has, but her inability to focus and her impulsivity have remained with her even today, at age 9.

My experiences as the mother of a daughter with special emotional and learning needs has shown me exactly how so many beautiful and brilliant black girls end up without the educational experience they deserve, and instead on their way to our nation's prisons. 

My daughter is a brilliant student who has always gotten good grades and scored highly on tests, but she is also constantly being reprimanded by her teachers for not falling in line. This focus on disciplining her has affected the way she socializes with other children. The trips to the principal's office began in first grade, and the suspensions and threats of expulsion have made her third grade year almost unbearable. I cannot count how many time this past school year I have had to leave work to pick Nay up from school because she impulsively grabbed a student to get his attention or had an emotional outburst that could have easily been deescalated by her teacher. I have sat in countless meetings with school administrators and teachers where I was mostly badgered with examples of why my daughter is a "problem child."

I'm not alone in my experience. In addition to poor resources in schools where students face suspension, expulsion and police intervention for "bad behavior," many schools in the U.S. have adopted "zero tolerance" policies (as early as the elementary level) for offenses that most would regard as simple child's play. I'd add that the pressures placed on teachers and administrators in most school districts across the nation to produce stellar pass rates also affects how "troublemakers" in the classroom are handled. For most teachers, there simply is not enough time to teach their students what is required by test-driven curricula and also to offer accommodations for students with special needs.

I am grateful that my experience and education have allowed me to be an advocate for my child. I learned to shift those complaint-driven meetings toward solutions. I learned to ask for classroom assistance for my Nay (which many don't know is available). I knew that I had a right to investigate suspension efforts and inquire with districtwide administrators whether other options than suspension were feasible. I am well aware that the privilege of my education and my perceived status affects the way my daughter navigates the disciplinary system, but she is still a black girl who (through a false, anti-black narrative) is always perceived as aggressive and/or violent.

My experiences made me wonder and worry about black parents who have no understanding of educational legislation, like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, that could help their children. School systems seemed to be uninterested in helping those parents learn. I also wondered how many black parents were, like me, only told about medical intervention for their children, through conversations about medications like Ritalin, and not any options like play therapy or family counseling.

I have figured out how to keep my daughter in the classroom more than she is out of it. And while we have not had a police intervention yet, I am always aware that one could happen. Through my advocacy against zero-tolerance policies on school campuses and for getting underserved students the medical health help they need, I've heard story after story of police being called on black girls who were essentially having mental health crises, or of students being hauled off to juvenile detention centers for the kind of spats most kids experience during adolescence. What we know is that when children enter judicial systems early in life, they tend to continue being caught up in it well into adulthood.

Much of the #BlackLivesMatter movement centers on the desire to see black people as full, complex, sometimes imperfect human beings. When we see that our educational (and social) systems deal with black children in ways designed to hurt them (having them arrested) instead of help them (giving them access to behavioral health services), we see that the movement addresses far more than police brutality.