In the past several years, an important national conversation has focused to an unprecedented degree on the challenge of helping boys of color succeed in schools. The issues that girls of color face have not received the same attention. But now the balance has begun to shift in important respects. And we need girls to begin to take their rightful place on center stage, for there is work to be done.
To move toward solutions in one important aspect of the school discipline context—the relationship between girls of color and school police officers—the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality is conducting research in the southern United States as part of a project funded by the Open Society Foundations. With our partner, the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, we have been examining the challenges that both sides face, as well as promising practices.
Each side has grievances to air, but this is not a relationship between equals. The police, and the school systems they patrol, have the power, legal authority, and, of course, the weapons that girls do not. This imbalance hardly escapes the notice of girls who, despite any perceived “defiance,” are ultimately vulnerable to officers’ and educators’ decisions and actions.
These systems and the adults working in them must take the first steps toward change. For school police to begin this process, greater opportunities should be provided to learn culturally competent practices so that officers do not perceive a lack of compliance or respect or see active conflict where none exists.
Monique W. Morris, the co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, writes about stereotypes of black girls in her recently published book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools: "[T]he student identity of black girls is often ... understood through how much ‘attitude’ she gives to others around her.”
This skewed perspective, Morris continues, results from the stereotype of black “femininity as dominant, overbearing, and unreasonably demanding, ... an idea that stands directly in opposition to the norms of what white femininity is supposed to be.”
Officers who are in charge of children need tools to identify behavior that may appear to be intentionally troublemaking but is actually rooted in trauma."
Regardless, when girls of any race or culture do speak up for themselves and against perceived injustices, they should not be judged against standards that are based on notions of femininity that consider submissiveness a positive value. In light of the potentially harmful consequences of such misperceptions, police should be provided with strong guidance that can help them understand and respond to behavior that may lie—or be perceived to lie—outside their own cultural norms.
In addition, officers who are in charge of children need tools to identify behavior that may appear to be intentionally troublemaking but is actually rooted in trauma. As noted in the basic school-resource-officer course manual devised by the National Association of School Resource Officers, or NASRO, “the most troublesome kids are often the most troubled kids.”
The manual adds that “adolescence is a uniquely dangerous time for youth,” noting that teens between the ages of 14 and 17 report the highest rates of victimization across almost all categories of crime. In light of such pervasive trauma, officers should take a nuanced approach to students who appear on the surface to act illogically and emotionally. Indeed, a trauma-sensitive approach to discipline should be an integral part of all school systems’ trainings and culture.
Understanding adolescent development is also critical if officers are to learn how to more appropriately address physical fights between girls, which are increasing in frequency. NASRO’s curriculum explains that, for adolescents, the “feeling” brain is more developed than the “thinking” brain—a fact to which all parents can probably attest.
The curriculum recognizes that traditional police techniques can be ineffective when dealing with children, especially those who have been victimized by violence and other forms of trauma. In fact, aggressive policing can have an effect opposite to what an officer intends, and it can quickly escalate an encounter.
In addition to these more general considerations about youths, officers should have the opportunity to receive guidance on the impact of gender and race on girls’ experience—factors that are rarely, if ever, addressed in police trainings. One such example: All basic training should include assistance on how to recognize the signs of sex trafficking. Police also need to learn about the effects of implicit bias. Bias can influence the decisions of officers of any race and is based, in part, on what Morris describes as "[c]aricatures of black femininity that are often deposited into ... our public consciousness, narrowly defining black female identity and movement ... as hypersexual, conniving, loud, and sassy.”
But improved relations between girls of color and police are not the sole responsibility of the officers. Neither can improvements be addressed by officer training alone. Police culture itself, particularly in the context of policing youths, needs to be systematically reconsidered. School resource officers should be valued as highly as other, more traditionally elite law-enforcement squads. We should reward officers both for the specialized training they receive and the demanding roles that they need to master when doing the delicate and challenging work of policing children.
Perhaps most critically, school systems must also act as partners in this effort. When educators inappropriately rely on law enforcement to enforce school rules, it undercuts officers’ proper purpose. More harmfully, it can lead to the improper criminalization of students’ behavior—or the threat thereof.
Miscommunication and conflict between police and girls of color, and the disproportionate rates of school discipline to which these problems contribute, will not be resolved overnight. Shifting the culture of schools and the police who patrol them will require active participation by the community and across multidisciplinary agencies. But the first steps, without question, must be taken by the grown-ups.