Equating Black Girls With Bad Attitudes Is Not the Answer
Black girls are disproportionately penalized for arbitrary infractions like having a ‘bad attitude’
I met Stephanie Patton, the principal of a public middle school for girls in Columbus, Ohio, in 2016. At a community meeting, she announced that after a lot of deep reflection and discussion about the criminalization of Black girls, she and her faculty would no longer punish their students for having a “bad attitude.” She had noticed that responding to her mostly African American student body with exclusionary discipline was only contributing to the harm these girls were experiencing.
Instead, she developed a school discipline continuum that included mentoring, positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), restorative conferencing, and an advisory program that starts girls off each day by promoting their self-worth, communication skills, and goal-setting. Only if absolutely necessary — after everything else had been explored and exhausted — were suspensions used as a last-resort intervention. Ms. Patton and her team were committed to doing everything they could to avoid punishing girls in a way that would make future contact with the juvenile court or criminal legal system more likely. They began by building an infrastructure to support this decision.
Along the corridors of the school are strategically placed whiteboards with quotes shared by faculty, staff, and students, such as, “I never dreamed about success; I worked for it,” or, “Your life is your story; write well, edit often.” In small areas of the school, there are pillows and comfortable seats for girls who need a moment to collect their thoughts, take a breath, or regroup after (or before) a conflict occurs. There are three additional classrooms that are used as “time out” spaces for girls who need a course correction. One is a PBIS room filled with material incentives (puzzles, materials for arts and crafts, decorative pillows, etc.) for students, and the other two are dedicated to in-school suspension (ISS) activities.
In many educational spaces, ISS still results in a loss of instruction time — students do little, if any, academic work. However, at Ms. Patton’s school, the ISS classrooms are structured to respond to…