(WOMENSENEWS)–Monique Morris says black girls are getting into trouble at school for just being who they have to be.
“The majority of black girls who have been suspended got kicked out for being loud, even if they weren’t being disrespectful,” said Morris, co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, based in Oakland, Calif. “It’s cultural for black girls to speak up, and they are going to fight back if something is wrong.”
Once these girls have gotten in trouble at school, they’re often seen as “the problem.”
This is especially true because black girls bullying at school often looks different than it does for white girls. Morris offers the example of a student who was kicked out for vandalizing school property when she wrote “I hate the B’s at this school.” “She was being bullied and provoked to fight, and didn’t know how to react. This was her cry for help, and no one listened,” she said.
“We need to stop these push-out practices that criminalize girls for who they are instead of what they’ve done,” added Morris, whose article “Education and the Caged Bird: School Pushout and the Juvenile Court School,” published in Poverty and Race Research Action Council, is one of the few explorations into the intersection of black girls, education and the juvenile justice system. “Girls are at an increased risk because there is a lack of community-based response to their problems. We have male-oriented reporting centers, but there’s no exploration of what girls need so that they won’t reoffend.”
Once they’ve gotten stuck in a troubled pattern, many black girls simply drop out of school.
Just 60 percent of black females graduate high school in four years, the National Women’s Law Center reports, compared to 78 percent of white females. Black girls are three times more likely than white girls to receive out-of-school suspensions, according to a 2012 report by the Department of Education, and are more likely to repeat a grade.
Data show the steep price that veering off course at school costs later in life. A black woman who has graduated from high school has an income that is 48 percent higher–almost $7,000–than a black female dropout, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Black women with a bachelor’s degree will earn almost three times more than those who have dropped out of high school.
But gender stereotypes hinder access to the financial rewards tied to graduating and earning degrees.
The stereotype of the “loud black female” contradicts traditional standards of femininity, and is one reason black girls start having trouble at school, finds a 2007 study by Edward Morris. The study found that black girls were more likely to be punished for being “unlady-like” than white girls, and also reported that teachers identified black girls as being “loud, defiant and precocious.”
“There is an assumption that black girls are doing ‘swimmingly’ in school because they outperform their male counterparts. But that narrative contradicts data,” said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president of education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center, in Washington, D.C. “We’re just now seeing the educational needs of black boys become a topic–yet black girls face very real academic barriers that are connected to both their racial and gender identities.”
Nakisha Lewis, program officer at Just and Fair School Funds, headquartered in New York City, said black girls have always been in an endangered space.
“Our traditional racial justice work is not about black women; our gender conversations plateau at pay equity. The less educated a young woman is, the more likely she is to become part of the system. Once these girls are criminalized, they get locked in a cycle — they get rearrested. Girls disappear, they drop off the map. We can’t afford that, no community can afford that,” said Lewis, formerly the racial and gender equity program manager at the Schott Foundation, based in Cambridge, Mass.
More Girls Arrested
Boys make up 85 percent of the 61,000 youth in juvenile residential placement, but research shows that girls–particularly black girls–can wind up in these places far more easily.
In 2010, 67 percent of the 500,000 young women in the juvenile justice system were arrested for larceny-theft, loitering or violating curfew, disorderly conduct and other low-level offenses. In comparison, 52 percent of males were arrested because of offenses they committed in these categories.
Girls are also more likely to be arrested than boys for committing these crimes: girls make up 15 percent of the population within the juvenile justice system, yet account for 30 percent of arrests for breaking curfew and loitering, 34 percent of disorderly conduct arrests and 45 percent of arrests for theft, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The average age a female teen first enters the juvenile justice system is 13 or 14 years old. And historically, blacks become part of the system at even younger ages, regardless of gender.
Girls are usually not arrested for violent crimes but rather, because they commit status offenses, those acts that would not be illegal if they were performed by an adult, such as truancy. The 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act protects juveniles from being detained after committing a status offense, but many are still arrested because of an exception in the law if a court order has been violated.
Organizations such as Vera Institute of Justice‘s Status Offense Reform Center are working to help create alternatives pathways for youth who have committed status offenses in order to keep them out of the juvenile justice system.
For now, however, girls face the sex bias of being punished more for lighter offenses. And black girls–who are twice as likely to be put into residential placement–are often punished more severely than white girls.
What these figures don’t show is that many girls who commit these crimes are trying to survive after running away from a dangerous home environment.
Forty-two percent of girls in residential placement have suffered physical abuse, in comparison with 22 percent for boys; while 35 percent have a history of sexual abuse, as compared with 8 percent for boys, finds a 2010 study from Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention.
Multiple studies have shown that as many as 70 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have had at least one traumatic experience, with many suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite these numbers, in 2010 a hearing on girls in the juvenile justice system in Washington, D.C., found that most juvenile detention facilities don’t have sufficient mental health programs.
Female Needs Overlooked
Because the juvenile justice system was created with boys in mind, programs that serve female needs, including reproductive counseling and services for teen mothers, are lacking. In 1992, reforms were added to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that required states to introduce gender-responsive plans to better serve girls within juvenile detention facilities.
Federal investment in programs to reduce juvenile delinquency, however, has declined 50 percent since 2002, rendering most local gender-responsive programs insufficient, according to a report by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
“Budgets are low and they’re primarily focused on punitive and safety measures rather than rehabilitative programs,” said Jyoti Nanda, author of the 2012 article “Blind Discretion: Girls of Color and Delinquency in the Juvenile Justice System“ and a core faculty member at UCLA Law.
Although juvenile court schools are locally run, the transient nature of the schools means that teachers don’t get to know students for long enough to modify the curriculum to meet individual students’ needs.
Morris, from the Oakland justice institute, has found that among black females in juvenile facilities in northern California, only 46 percent felt the education provided by their court school was good. And while two-thirds of court schools sampled in the study use state or local curriculum, half of the teachers believe those standards should not be applied to those in detention centers. In the study, 94 percent of the girls surveyed said they value their education.
Little has been done to study what happens to girls after they’ve left juvenile detention in terms of educational and career attainments, especially through the lens of race. Only recently have attempts been made to study the educational barriers black girls face, most notably, Schott Foundation’s Girls Equity Grant program at the same time as the National Women’s Law Center called for more research on the topic in 2012.
In general, most data on young people released from detention centers focus on those who reoffend.
Better data could help devise alternative pathways for these girls, who often have a tough time readjusting when they return to their old schools.
“The schools often don’t want these kids back,” said Nanda, of UCLA Law School. “And the kids don’t want to go back either.”