According to recent data
published by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights,
12% of Black girls have experienced an out-of-school suspension in the
U.S., compared with 7% of Native American girls, 4% of Latinas, and 2%
of White girls. Among girls with a disability, the rate of out-of-school
suspension is 19%. In some states--such as Wisconsin (21%), Missouri
(16%), and Michigan (16%)--the rate of suspension among Black girls is
significantly higher than the national rate.
These statistics also reveal that the marginalization of Black children
from school includes more than just suspensions. Black children
nationwide are 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of
students who have experienced a school-related arrest. However, a closer
look will reveal an even greater racial disparity among girls.
According to OCR data, Black girls are 31% of girls referred to law enforcement and about 43% of girls who have experienced a school-related arrest.
I have been quoted
as saying, "Black girls who have been suspended got kicked out for
being loud, even if they weren't being disrespectful…It's cultural for
Black girls to speak up, and they are going to fight back if something
is wrong." And I stand by that. However, there is much more to the
There are many explanations for the elevated use of suspension and
other exclusionary discipline with Black girls. Like their male
counterparts, Black girls are subjected to punitive policies that
emphasize discipline over school-based approaches that can repair
relationships and harm between students and, when necessary, between
students and adults. Black girls are pushed out of school for fighting
each other, cursing at adults, social bullying, poor student
performance, truancy, and violating dress codes, among other citations.
One of the most controversial reasons for which Black girls are removed
from school has been "student defiance," a subjective reference to
behaviors that are perceived as being in direct opposition to the
institution's social norms and expectations.
My own forthcoming research on Black girls and school push-out found
that when Black girls connect with the teacher, they tend to feel more
comfortable asking questions in the classroom. On the opposite end of
the spectrum, when student-teacher relationships are poor, Black girls
may exhibit any number of behaviors that openly signal dissatisfaction,
such as yelling at or using profanity with the teacher. In a recent
research interview, a Dean of discipline for a high school in Oakland,
CA, discussed a scenario which may help to illustrate this point.
“I get referrals for the simplest reasons,” he said.
“For girls yelling, ‘I don’t understand!’ For teachers saying, ‘Did you
come to school to learn?’ And then student saying, ‘You come to school
to teach?’…You know, our babies can be kind of snappy, so the way they
say it, you know, it might have an expletive in there somewhere… The
sisters bring a lot attention to themselves…They’re not docile.”
Docility does not make for an engaged, critical-thinking student. Nor
does unruly, disruptive behavior. However, the expressive nature of
Black girls may inform—and sometimes escalate—student-teacher conflict.
Teachers who feel successful with their students attribute their success
to connecting with students beyond the required coursework. As one
teacher once told me, given the plethora of issues that affect a
student’s performance, “the teacher has to teach more than just the
As parents, educators, and concerned community members, we must examine
the ways in which our educational institutions are underserving our
children—and pushing our girls out of school alongside the boys. The
conversation about school discipline is not about excusing abhorrent
behavior. It’s about implementing alternative reactions to negative
student behavior and developing relationships that can teach our young
people about who they are, and how they should behave in a loving
learning environment. For our girls, we must also reflect upon the
extent to which our reactions to their behaviors are more about whether
they are being "good girls.” We also have to consider how expressions of
Black femininity (e.g., how girls dress or wear their hair) may be
pathologized by school rules. In our haste to teach children social
rules, we sometimes fail to examine whether these rules are rooted in
patriarchy and/or racial oppression, and ultimately serve to undermine
the full expression and learning of young, Black women and girls.
We can, and must, do better.