President Obama’s November report on Women and Girls of Color was an important step, inviting attention to reduce the barriers confronting them on the path to college and careers. On February 11, a panel of experts will gather on Capitol Hill to discuss the issue with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Yvette D. Clarke. Following these examples, it’s time to give some attention to the unique obstacles these girls and women face.
Girls of color, and African American girls in particular, face many of the same challenges as boys inside the classroom, including huge differences compared to white students in the frequency and manner in which they’re disciplined. But they also face unique obstacles that until recently have drawn little attention. We need to understand these obstacles more clearly if we hope to find answers to surmount them.
Overall, we know from the latest federal data that black students are suspended at three times the rate of their white counterparts. We also know this disparity is not caused by black students engaging in more serious misbehavior, but rather by black students being punished more harshly for the same misbehavior as whites.
What’s received less attention in these statistics, however, is that black girls are suspended at a higher rate—12 percent—than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys. The rate for white girls is just 2 percent.
So what’s different for black girls? A brand new report concludes they are “pushed out, overpoliced and underprotected.” Why?
- Black girls often encounter racially and gender-biased stereotypes about appropriate behavior that shape their interactions with adults in the classroom. Research has found that black girls are more likely to be perceived by adults as “loud, defiant and precocious” and in need of “social correction” than girls of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. As a result, they are punished more frequently for acting in an “unladylike” manner—for “talking back” or being “aggressive”—when they are simply expressing their opinions. Color also makes a difference: researchers at Villanova University found that darker-skinned black girls are three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with light skin.
- In addition, black girls and other girls of color face higher levels of sexual harassment inside and outside of schools than their male peers. According to a report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Women’s Law Center, black high school girls not only are more likely than white girls to experience sexual harassment, but also to be in situations where there is inadequate adult support to stop it. Unfortunately, these situations can extend to interactions with adults entrusted with their care, including harassment by security guards when passing through metal detectors to enter their schools.
- Black girls and girls of color also are more likely than their brothers to have parenting responsibilities for younger siblings. Tending to little brothers and sisters while mom or dad is working can make it hard to complete homework and get to school on time, especially if you’re made late by stopping at kindergarten every morning.
We have learned there are discipline alternatives. A recent brief by the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative, consisting of 26 nationally recognized experts from the social science, education and legal fields, recommends examining data on school discipline by race, gender, age, reason for suspension and the educators involved, and then using the data to inform frank conversations about what is happening to groups of children and why.
One solution could be restorative justice programs, which encourage students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends for injurious behavior, thereby creating a safer and more positive environment for everyone in the school building. Other alternatives include collaborative problem-solving in schools, social/emotional learning programs, and improving teachers’ skills in classroom management and developing positive relationships with students.
But can these alternatives be made even more effective by applying a gender lens? That is, by using them to look specifically at the dynamics for girls? Might a restorative “circle” of students be used to detect challenges that girls are experiencing and to hear their ideas for how schools could better support them? Would girls of color benefit when educators and school security officers receive sexual harassment training and also learn the warning signs of trauma or abuse?
We believe we know those answers, but there is too little research and practice to back us up. Reports and studies rarely break out data for girls of color and when they do, they often frame their needs in terms of their relationship to boys and men—as sisters, mothers, wives and daughters—rather than as individuals in their own right who face unique challenges and opportunities.
Putting all children on the path to success requires understanding that they don’t all start in the same place. We must develop customized approaches that address the particular circumstances of different populations. We haven’t done that yet, and girls of color—especially black girls—are worse off for it.