They Need Us, Too: The Criminalization Of Black Girls In Schools

One of the things I love most about teaching 5th graders is that they're not shy about calling you out. Rather it be for your shoes not matching your shirt just right or you spelling something wrong on the board, trust me, you'll know about it. It keeps me on my toes.

“Ms. Franklin looove the boys!” KD* could often be heard blurting (out of turn, of course) from the back left corner of my classroom, her desk pushed so far into that corner that the door would sometimes hit it as she opened it for classmates and guests with nothing but the trash can and a stack of textbooks as her neighbors. What got her into that isolated corner, you ask? A combination of constant talking, not being on task, and distracting her neighbors. Basically, for being a mirror of myself when I was in 5th grade.  That’s what.

One of the things I love most about teaching 5th graders is that they’re not shy about calling you out. Rather it be for your shoes not matching your shirt just right or you spelling something wrong on the board, trust me, you’ll know about it. It keeps me on my toes. It also helps me. Any teacher will tell you that we learn from our students daily.  However, I never quite agreed with KD’s criticism. The sneaky smirk on her face or the occasional disgusted scoff that would come after her “Ms. Franklin looove the boys” remark always implied that I loved my boys more than I loved my girls, or that I didn’t love my girls at all.

Which couldn’t be further from the truth. In no way did I ever make a difference in the kids in that class. Not when I’m aware that consistency and fairness are two of the top principles of classroom management, right? Or that I, myself, identify as a feminist and am all about some girl power, right? Or that I could never play favorites because I’ve witnessed other teachers practice it and completely abhor it, right?

Right! Well, maybe. Because for some reason, KD’s proclamation has stuck with me…

We know that gender bias exists in the world – DUH. It’s certainly no stranger to the classroom, either. Statistics show that boys are called on in class more than girls. Girls are expected to perform better in subjects such as language arts and writing whereas boys have been thought to excel in math and science. Any time a teacher has a task that requires any sort of physical effort, it’s commonplace for them to call on the boys. As much as we teachers try to avoid these stereotypes, sometimes we sadly fall prey to them.

Being black and female can be a double-edged sword. While hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic run rampant and women like Rihanna dominate their avenues, it still sometimes seems as if the black woman is America’s most disrespected citizen, as Malcolm X suggested back in the day (here I could go into how acknowledging intersectionality is essential for feminism to work, but that’s a completely different blog post or research paper for a different day). Not too long ago, a friend and I were discussing how black people themselves will easily condemn black female celebrities like Stacey Dash, Chrisette Michele, and Omarosa but cape for R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, and Chris Brown with a quickness. It begs the question, “When, where, and how can black women truly win?”

And sadly, being black and female is negatively affecting our girls in the classroom, too.  According to Monique W. Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School,

“Black girls are 16 percent of girls in schools, but 42 percent of girls receiving corporal punishment, 42 percent of girls expelled with or without educational services, 45 percent of girls with at least one out-of-school suspension, 31 percent of girls referred to law enforcement, and 34 percent of girls arrested on campus. Too often, when people read these statistics, they ask, “What did these girls do?” when often, it’s not about what they did, but rather, the culture of discipline and punishment that leaves little room for error when one is black and female.”

Society’s stereotypical view of black women has caused little black girls to be viewed as less innocent than little white girls. This translates right over into the classroom where, if a black girl even stands up for herself, she’s “talking back” and punished because it’s perceived as being too in-your-face or “ghetto.” Morris also states that zero-tolerance policies such as school dress codes attack black girls, noting that “some school districts actually have written rules against children arriving at school with afros, locs or braids, i.e. natural black hairstyles.”

Perhaps the most striking effect of the unfair discipline of black girls in schools is its relation to the school-to-prison pipeline, which is mostly discussed concerning low income, high poverty, urban schools. Mackenzie Chakara defines the school-to-prison pipeline as “the path through which unfair treatment of adolescents leads to involvement in the criminal justice system.”

As mentioned earlier, black girls are being suspended and expelled more than their white female classmates. Chakara’s research shows that when black girls are repeatedly discriminated against and unjustly and forcefully removed from the classroom, it can lead them toward a journey of becoming high school dropouts, never reaching their career goals, having multiple run-ins with the law, or developing mental health disorders.

So why aren’t we trying to save our girls? Perhaps we’re too busy saving our boys. It is possible for teachers to fall into something called the “mother model.” This is when the “mama’s boy” phenomenon crosses over into the classroom, the one Michelle Obama slapped our wrists for.

As a teacher working in a urban school, this is admittedly an easy trap to fall into. That’s another thing I love about teaching 5th grade; you get to witness early adolescents slowly but surely begin to shape into what they might ultimately become. It’s a joy getting to observe my future lawyers, NBA players, teachers, and TV personalities every day – IF they stay on the right track. And that magical “if” affects mostly who? The boys. For every boy in my room I could see as another black president, I can see just as many sitting in a jail cell, dropping out of school, or, most disturbingly, becoming another Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin. We know this world doesn’t love black boys, so who will?

But we cannot forget about our girls. When black girls are punished for every tiny infraction in school due to teachers’ or administrators’ biased misunderstanding of them, it often results in the removal of them from the classroom, which results in a loss of class time that will ultimately set them behind and negatively alter their overall attitude toward school. And the scary part, to me, is that it may be unintentional.

So, let’s be intentional. Let’s be intentional in uplifting and speaking life into our boys and girls; our beautiful, young, black children. The road won’t be easy and, realistically, we can’t save them all, but it’s a lot better than looking back and realizing we didn’t try at all. Do it for the girls like KD – and 5th grade Ms. Franklin.

X’s and O’s,


*Student’s name was changed to protect privacy

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

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