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Study investigates high discipline rates among Black girls

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Black girls are disciplined at higher rates and with harsher consequences than their White counterparts, according to a new report from Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies.

The study, called Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underpotected, compares 2011-12 data on out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and school-related arrests for White and Black girls in New York City and Boston, and explains the adverse consequences of the disparities.

The data showed that in Boston, Black girls are 11 times more likely to be disciplined than White girls and 12 times more likely to be suspended. In New York City, Black girls were 10 times more likely to be disciplined and 10 times more likely to be suspended than White girls.

According to the study, students who are suspended and face harsh disciplinary action are more likely to drop out of school. The report states, “Given the economic dependence of so many black children on a female wage earner, girls dropping out of high school is of huge socioeconomic concern.”

The study also reinforces the connection between punitive disciplinary action in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline, a trend in which students are funneled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system.

Nancy Potter, staff attorney at Pennsylvania’s Education Law Center, said that the report confirms the work that the center has been doing for years on the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Nothing in this report is, unfortunately, surprising,” Potter said.

Potter said that the rate of exclusionary discipline practices — suspensions and expulsions — in Philadelphia schools, especially among Black girls, is also alarming.

According to the 2011-12 Civil Rights Data Collection, a biennial survey of key education and civil rights issues in the nation’s public schools, in Philadelphia 25 percent of Black girls received out-of-school suspensions, compared to 2 percent of White girls. The data also show that in Philadelphia, 33 percent of Black girls were referred to law enforcement as opposed to 2 percent of White girls.

Many factors contribute to these patterns, the report says. More Black girls attend schools with zero tolerance discipline environments and increased security and law enforcement presence. It also says that "benign neglect" of girls compared to boys and lack of recognition of their accomplishments leads girls to disengage from school. Plus, many Black girls experience sexual harassment and familial obligations that also contribute to school behavior that can lead to disciplinary action and school disengagement.

Potter notes that the high level of security presence in schools makes students feel unsafe. Girls especially have strong responses to these types of authority measures. It creates larger problems when guards do not know how to be gender-responsive.

These factors cause Black girls to feel slighted and neglected by the school system, Potter said.

In dealing with the disparities, the report recommends having more inclusive policies to address the needs of Black girls. This would include reassessing sexual harassment policies, criminal justice interventions like counseling support and programs for girls who are pregnant or who are parents.

“Exclusionary disciplinary policies don’t work,” Potter said.

“Girls need to be involved and their voices valued in school decisions. They need to be able to talk about their experiences and know it’s valued.”

Camden Copeland is an intern at the Notebook.

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