Literature exploring the school-to-prison pipeline is dominated by an investigation of discipline, and in particular, the use of exclusionary discipline (i.e., suspensions and expulsions) among Black males, and largely obfuscates the ways in which Black females and males experience this phenomenon together and differently.
While leading a series of focus groups in New York to inform a report by the African American Policy Forum, Black Girls Matter, I encountered Tamara, who described her first experience with suspension as follows:*
I was in the 5th grade, and this boy, he kept spitting them spitballs through a straw at me while we was [sic] taking a test. I told the teacher, and he told him to stop; but of course, he didn’t. He kept doing it. So, I got up and I yelled at him, and he punched me in my face, like in my eye ... my eye was swollen and everything ... I don’t even remember if I fought him, ’cause that’s just how it ended, I think. But I remember that we both got suspended, and I was like, why did I get suspended? I was, like, a victim ... all the girls rushed to my side, they took me down to the nurse and then, it was just a mess. 26
Tamara described this incident as the first of many subsequent suspensions. It sent her a powerful signal about whether or not she would be protected in school — and how she needed to behave moving forward. As she understood it, she was likely going to face suspension under most circumstances involving conflict, no matter the particular circumstances. The common approach in schools and outside of them for discussing this scenario would prioritize responding to hissuspension, rather than equally responding to both. While patterns of exclusionary discipline have been found to produce similar outcomes between Black girls and Black boys, narrative-based research —the sort drawn on throughout this book — uncovers a more nuanced picture. 27
Through stories we find that Black girls are greatly affected by the stigma of having to participate in identity politics that marginalize them or place them into polarizing categories: they are either “good” girls or “ghetto” girls who behave in ways that exacerbate stereotypes about Black femininity, particularly those relating to socioeconomic status, crime, and punishment. 28 When Black girls do engage in acts that are deemed “ghetto” — often a euphemism for actions that deviate from social norms tied to a narrow, White middle-class definition of femininity — they are frequently labeled as nonconforming and thereby subjected to criminalizing responses. 29
It has also been speculated that Black girls’ nonconformity to traditional gender expectations may prompt educators to respond more harshly to the negative behaviors of Black girls. 30 For example, a 2007 study found that teachers often perceived Black girls as being “loud, defiant, and precocious” and that Black girls were more likely than their White or Latina peers to be reprimanded for being “unladylike.” 31 Other research has found that the issuance of summonses and/or arrests appear to be justified by students’ display of “irate,” “insubordinate,” “disrespectful,” “uncooperative,” or “uncontrollable” behavior. 32 These labels underscore the use of discipline, punishment, and the juvenile justice system to regulate identity and social status. They also reflect a consciousness that refuses to honor the critical thinking and leadership skills of Black girls, casting them as social deviants rather than critical respondents to oppression — perceived and concrete.
Notwithstanding these trends, the narrative arc of the school-to-prison pipeline has largely failed to interrogate how punitive discipline policies and other school-related decision-making affect the well-being of girls. Ignoring their unique pathways to confinement and other contact with the criminal legal system that result from school dropout and delinquency has lasting and transgenerational impacts, particularly for those who have experienced victimization. 33 Being abused and/or neglected as a child increases the risk of arrest among children by 59 percent and among adults by 28 percent. 34And female foster youth are at a higher risk of arrest (34 percent) by the age of nineteen than females and males in the general population (3 percent and 20 percent, respectively) — a reality that facilitates a “way of life” that is more likely to include surveillance, substance abuse, and participation in underground economies. 35 Failing to interrupt pathways to delinquency for girls has lasting effects not just on their own adult lives but also on the lives of future generations of girls and boys, who are more susceptible to being involved with the judicial system as a result of their mother’s incarceration.36 There have been some notable programs and moderate support for the daughters, partners, and mothers of criminalized men and boys; still, exploring the deficiencies and investing in the education of Black girls and the women they become must be about more than whether their father, brother, son, or partner is struggling or incarcerated. The full inclusion of Black girls in the dominant discourse on school discipline, pushout, and criminalization is important simply because it affects them — and their well-being is worthy of investment.
* Tamara is a pseudonym. Descriptive details and the names of group members and research participants have been changed to protect the privacy and ensure the safety of all students whose stories appear in this book.
25. Monique W. Morris, Race, Gender, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls (New York: African American Policy Forum, 2012).
26. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Priscilla Ocen, and Jyoti Nanda, Black Girls Matter: Pushed-Out, Over-Policed and Under-Protected (New York: African American Policy Forum, 2015).
27. Daniel Losen and Jonathan Gillespie, Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School (Los Angeles: Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles Civil Rights Project, 2012). See also John Wallace, Sarah Goodkind, Cynthia Wallace, and Jerald Bachman, “Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Differences in School Discipline Among U.S. High School Students: 1991–2005,” Negro Educational Review 59, nos. 1–2 (2008): 47–62.
28. Nikki Jones, Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner-City Violence (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009).
29. Jamilia Blake, Betty Ray Butler, Chance Lewis, and Alicia Darensbourg, “Unmasking the Inequitable Discipline Experiences of Urban Black Girls: Implications for Urban Educational Stakeholders,” Urban Review 43, no. 1 (2011): 90–106. See also Kristi Holsinger and Alexander Holsinger, “Different Pathways to Violence and Self-Injurious Behavior: African American and White Girls in the Juvenile Justice System,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 42, no. 2 (2005): 211–42.
30. Blake et al., “Unmasking the Inequitable Discipline Experiences of Urban Black Girls.”
31. Edward W. Morris, “ ‘Ladies’ or ‘Loudies’? Perceptions and Experiences of Black Girls in Classrooms,” Youth and Society 38, no. 4 (2007): 490–515.
32. Kathleen Nolan, Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
33. American Bar Association and National Bar Association, Justice by Gender: The Lack of Appropriate Prevention, Diversion, and Treatment Alternatives for Girls in the Juvenile Justice System (Washington, DC: ABA, NBA, 2001). See also Monique W. Morris, Stephanie Bush-Baskette, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, Confined in California: Women and Girls of Color in Custody (New York: African American Policy Forum, 2012).
34. Cathy S. Widom and Michael G. Maxfield, “An Update on the ‘Cycle of Violence,’ ” Research in Brief, U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, February 2001, NCJ 184894.
35. Gretchen R. Cusick, Judy R. Havlicek, and Mark E. Courtney, “Risk of Arrest: The Role of Social Bonds in Protecting Foster Youth Making the Transition to Adulthood,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 82, no. 1 (2012): 19–31; Barbara Bloom, Barbara Owen, and Stephanie Covington, Gender-Responsive Strategies: Research, Practice, and Guiding Principles for Women Offenders (Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections, 2002), 64.
36. Barbara Bloom and David Steinhart, Why Punish the Children?: A Reappraisal of the Children of Incarcerated Mothers in California (Oakland, CA: National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 1993.
Copyright © 2016 by Monique W. Morris. This excerpt originally appeared in PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.
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