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Equating Black Girls With Bad Attitudes Is Not the Answer

Black girls are disproportionately penalized for arbitrary infractions like having a ‘bad attitude’

Credit: Peathegee Inc/Getty Images

II 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 the academic and social-emotional needs of the girls who find themselves there. In one classroom, the “student center,” students have use of computers and spend their time completing academic tasks or other socially relevant, educational tasks, and they must show that they have completed the work before returning to the classroom. The room is set up classroom-lecture style, with desks that seat two to a table. On the wall is a giant butterfly, prominently displayed next to an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.”

“Our motto is ‘Real queens fix each other’s crowns.’”

“I see all of the completed assignments,” Ms. Patton said. “There is accountability because they know the principal will be reviewing their work.”

Girls in the school are encouraged to engage in advocacy and activism as part of their healing process. When I asked her what she meant, she gave an example of a group of girls who used their ISS assignment to research resource disparities among district public schools and craft a letter to educational policy makers demanding change. “Even though there are proper channels for that sort of complaint,” she said with a smile, “those are my girls.”

The other alternative classroom is a space that girls use for quiet, more reflective activities. The room is filled with couches, pillows, rugs, a large bulletin board with pictures of students making projects, and magenta drapes that cast a pink hue from wall to wall. The open space facilitates a flow of energy, and to the right is a Maker’s Corner for girls who are drawn to tactile activities as a way to calm down.

Ms. Patton says that she hardly uses the space for punitive intervention. “Most of our students come here to proactively work on projects with a teacher, not as a form of punishment,” she said.

By setting the intention of her school to respond to the underlying issues associated with student misbehavior, Ms. Patton has led her school in efforts that are significantly shifting the trajectories of students. That academic year, attendance was higher and suspensions decreased. She had not expelled anyone that year, and she noticed an increase in students’ commitment to collective accountability when there was a problem on campus, particularly bullying.

“Our motto is ‘Real queens fix each other’s crowns,’” she said to me with a wink.

To fall from favor is emotionally taxing and physically draining, but when someone believes herself to be “fit to wear a crown,” she embraces her full potential. One of the girls I spoke with at Ms. Patton’s school referred to being Black as being part of “royalty.” To her, racial pride was at the center of her belief in herself as a member of this learning community. She was worthy of investment, worthy of praise. While most children may not be of actual royal lineage, when they believe they’re “fit to wear a crown,” they’re likely to feel worthy of redemption. Even when they make a mistake, they understand that the response is not intended to derail their learning or their lives, but rather to reconnect them to their true purpose. The neglect — or erasure — of this identity can lead to girls internalizing harmful historical narratives about their inferiority, and could even leave them feeling as if no one cares about them at all.

For teachers and other educators, reinforcing the royal mindset requires a commitment not to equate accountability with discipline and punishment. We have conflated them for too long. Rejecting this false equation should be the norm, a baseline for all learning institutions. It isn’t something to consider, debate, or negotiate. As a premise, it is simply too faulty and dangerous.

Disciplinary action against Black girls included dress code violations, disruptive behavior, and cell phone use — discretionary judgments that are often made through a racialized and gendered lens.

Overall, students in U.S. schools are effective learners who do not exhibit behavior that warrants exclusionary discipline. However, racial disparities continue to plague those girls who do get into trouble in school. The research on Black girls and other girls of color in assessments of school discipline shows that the actions that lead to their suspension or expulsion do include fighting but are more often minor infractions whose punishment is not in fact about protecting the school from violence. Girls of color are more likely than others to be suspended for violations of school rules (for example, dress codes embedded in codes of conduct), for failure to comply with adult requests (for example, producing identification when requested), and for subjective, even arbitrary, infractions that leave ample room for personal biases to reign supreme, such as “willful defiance.”

In Kentucky, where researchers Edward Morris and Brea Perry examined the specific infractions leading to the use of exclusionary discipline statewide, they found that African American girls were more likely than white girls to be suspended for subjectively determined “violations” of school order, and that the racial disparities were more prevalent among girls than boys. The study acknowledges that “black girls are much more likely than other girls to be cited for infractions such as dress code violations, disobedience, disruptive behavior, and aggressive behavior — and these gaps are far wider than the gaps between black boys and boys of other races for these offenses.” The Kentucky study found that the specific infractions leading to the disproportionate use of disciplinary action against Black girls included dress code violations, disruptive behavior, and cell phone use — discretionary judgments that are often made through a racialized and gendered lens. Morris and Perry found that Black boys were twice as likely as boys of European descent to receive a disciplinary referral; however, Black girls were three times as likely as girls of European descent to receive a referral, based largely on the school administrators’ interpretation of behavior as disruptive or disobedient.

The culture of punishment that has dominated education for more than two decades is now being critically examined by many institutions and advocates, particularly as part of the current revulsion against stubborn racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and lingering xenophobia. Unfortunately, as the nation struggles to confront the vestiges of white supremacist ideology and its impact on education, some of our schools continue to respond to crisis with fear, rather than love.

By and large, schools are operating under the assumption that only intimidation changes behavior. This is nothing new. Just as “youthful misbehavior” has been dated to the beginning of recorded history, evidence of student violence in American schools has dated back more than a century. Religion and moral instruction were at the center of education in the American colonial era, planting seeds for a discipline philosophy rooted in the belief that children were predisposed to sin. The prevailing belief was that the most effective strategy to curb these sinful behaviors was to give kids an ultimatum: either practice extreme dedication to obedience or suffer extraordinary physical consequences. The Bible-inspired maxim, “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” was the order of the day. Evidence of the lengths to which this idea was taken is found in the words of Puritan leader John Cotton, who proposed to the Massachusetts General Court in 1641 that “rebellious children, whether they continue in riot or drunkenesse [sic], after due correction from their parents, or whether they curse or smite their parents, be put to death.”

While extreme, this response to youthful misbehavior reflects the deeply entrenched nature of violent course correction in our public consciousness, particularly as it applies to those who occupy the status of minors. Cotton’s open request is a prime example of just how irrational some of our public responses to the behavior of young people have been historically. Death? Really? As egregious as this example may seem, common approaches to student misbehavior today are similarly misaligned with moral, evidence-based methods.

Many school disciplinary measures reflect a belief that children should be forced into acceptable school behavior by intimidation, suppression, isolation, or arrest. In more than 20 states and jurisdictions, there are “disturbing schools” laws that make it an actual crime to be “obnoxious” or, as in South Carolina, to “interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college.” We have developed a robust infrastructure that responds to the negative behaviors of students with harsh punishment, often exclusion or force, ostensibly to mitigate conflict in schools. The assumption is that by removing students who exhibit problematic behavior from schools, we can produce safety in schools.

Amid pervasive racism, every form of exclusionary discipline — suspension, expulsion, corporal punishment, referral to law enforcement, and arrest on campus — reinforces stereotypes and fear of Black and Brown girls, who are disproportionately pushed out of school. Our fear has spiraled out of control, and very young girls are being suspended, even expelled for throwing tantrums or taking candy from a teacher’s desk.

We can do better.

Suspensions have become so common that people often reject the idea that they are inherently harmful. I was a guest on a Northern California radio program when a father called in to say that he wanted all of the “bad girls” out of the school so that his daughter could learn. He said it with conviction — and I accepted his challenge. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard from fearful parents or a concerned public servant about what could happen if we keep every girl labeled as “disruptive” in school. Many people have an anecdote about a girl who was suspended from a school and instantly the conditions improved for other children. In response, I always pose the question: Did the conditions actually improve?

Our challenge is not to mediate student misbehavior, but rather to better understand that this misbehavior is almost always associated with a student’s perception of, and reaction to, harm.

If a student is causing harm and triggering pain among other students, there must be an intervention. She may need another classroom or a different educational team, but if we think that everything would be “fine” just because a “bad” or “disruptive” girl is no longer attending classes with other students, we’re mistaken. Just as removing a cancerous cell from a human body can temporarily send someone into remission — temporarily saving a life — but unless the conditions change in the system, the cancer is likely to form again. Schools that report having minimal or no suspensions or expulsions understand that the intentions and culture of a school have a lot to do with how students behave and what happens when they behave in ways that disrupt learning. Radically shifting the outcomes for girls of color, and for their classmates who experience conflict with them, isn’t possible unless the goal to do precisely that is shaping a school’s intentions and culture.

Albert Einstein once said that “the worst thing seems to be for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force, and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the sound sentiments, the sincerity, and the self-confidence of the pupil.” Exclusionary discipline is significantly associated with a failure to complete school and with poor student achievement. Even one suspension is associated with an increased probability of future contact with the criminal legal system. Girls with an education are less likely to be poor, to be involved in violent relationships, and to be arrested. Lawrence DeRidder wrote in 1990 that experiencing suspension and expulsion “hurries the dropout process” and lowers academic performance, making kids vulnerable to school pushout, participation in underground economies, and trouble with the law. In the words of professors Russ Skiba and Reece Peterson, “Indiscriminate use of force without regard for its effects is the hallmark of authoritarianism, incompatible with the functioning of a democracy, and certainly incompatible with the transmission of democratic values to children.”

Fixing each other’s crowns requires that we explore precisely what is disrupting the positioning or composition of the crown. Our challenge is not to mediate student misbehavior, but rather to better understand that this misbehavior — when it is a real disruption and not a construct of policies designed to criminalize normal adolescent and childhood development — is almost always associated with a student’s perception of, and reaction to, harm.

Copyright © 2019 Monique W. Morris. The excerpt originally appeared in Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

Co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute. Author of several books, including Pushout, Black Stats, and Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues.

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