(This is the first post in a three-part series)
The new question-of-the-week is:
How should schools and districts respond to discipline disparities affecting black girls?
This question, and the columns providing responses, comprise a special project being guest-hosted by Terri N. Watson, Ph.D. (City College of New York).
Dr. Watson provided an introduction to this three-part series last week. She, along with Drs. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz and Venus Evans-Winters, participated in a conversation on my BAM! Radio Show about this topic. You might also be interested in previous posts at this column on Race & Gender Challenges.
Part one of this series will highlight the voices and perspectives of black girls:
Response From Dr. Terri N. Watson
Dr. Terri N. Watson is an assistant professor in the Department of Leadership and Human Development at the City College of New York. A Harlem native, her research examines the practices of successful school leaders and the impact of education policies on children, specifically black girls. Dr. Watson is currently serving as the guest editor of a special issue of the Journal of Educational Administration and History. The special issue, A Seat at the Table, will be published in summer 2020. Importantly, it will celebrate the impact, ingenuity, and leadership practices of black girls and women in school contexts in the United States and abroad:
In the U.S., the teaching force is overwhelmingly white and female. This is problematic for all children, especially black girls, as their race and gender are incompatible with the schoolhouse. Meaning, in spaces we call schools, whiteness is centered. Whiteness upholds a paradigm of femininity that privileges the traits, practices, and characteristics of women and girls who identify as white. Hence, as a vast majority of teachers are white women, black girls are “othered” long before they enter the classroom where far too many are deemed “unteachable,” “aggressive,” “loud,” or “ratchet.” This disparity is reflected in school discipline data wherein black girls are suspended more than all other girls, and most boys, in every state in the nation. Further, black girls are most cited for subjective infractions including “defiance,” “dress code,” and “the use of profanity.” Unfortunately, in spaces we call schools, discipline polices serve to subjugate, humiliate, and separate black girls from the learning environment.
Instead of functioning as loving and caring communities in spaces we call schools, discipline policies are weaponized and used against black girls who are not seen as children. Black girls are adultified (considered adultlike) as early as 5 years of age and deemed “less innocent” and “aggressively feminine” in comparison with their white counterparts (Epstein, Blake, & Gonzalez, 2017). Likewise, on Jan.15, 2019, four 12-year-old black girls were allegedly strip-searched by school administrators in Binghamton, N.Y., for acting “hyper and giddy.” The administrators were said to be looking for drugs to explain the girls’ childlike behavior. A week later during a school board meeting, the Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow (a community group) reported, “The children were instructed to remove their clothing, and felt ashamed, humiliated, and traumatized by the experience.”
In 2016, I served as one of the editors of a special issue of The Journal of Negro Education aptly titled, “Why We Can’t Wait: (Re) Examining the Opportunities and Challenges for Black Women and Girls in Education.” My manuscript, “Talking Back": The Perceptions and Experiences of Black Girls Who Attend City High, examined the ways in which six black girls perceived their experiences in a large urban high school and concluded with recommendations for school leaders who sought to improve the schooling experiences of black girls. These recommendations appear below and along with this special edition of Larry Ferlazzo’s Classroom Q&A are intended to get to the heart of the matter in an effort to address the discipline disparities affecting black girls’ academic success.
The perspectives offered in this study draw attention to the realities that affect the schooling experiences of black girls at CHS. Based on this study’s findings, the following recommendations are offered to school leaders as starting points for discussion:
Affinity groups. Several of the study’s participants described negative perceptions that many of CHS’ teachers, administrators, and security agents held of black girls. In response, schools should establish affinity groups: They build self-esteem, provide a safe place for students, and foster positive relationships among students and the larger school community.
Mental-health professionals. Mental health is essential to student success. Several girls shared that they suffered from depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, by-and-large therapy is frowned upon in the black community, and many black girls oftentimes suffer in silence. Schools should provide access to mental-health professionals to students and, if requested, their families.
Post clear rules and regulations. Several black girls felt CHS’ security agents targeted them. By posting clear rules and regulations throughout the school building, unpleasant interactions between students and security agents may be avoided. Moreover, if a student is disciplined, the student should know why she is being disciplined, and the consequence(s) should be clearly articulated in the regulations.
Form a task force. While all of the study’s participants are on track to graduate from high school, data trends show black girls tend to drop out of high school at higher rates than their peers. Furthermore, based on the data gathered for this study, several black girls at CHS were found to experience challenges during their high school career that could have caused them to drop out. To ensure their success, schools should form a task force aimed at improving the educational experiences and outcomes of black girls.
Professional development. Several black girls interviewed for this study detailed conflicts they experienced with teachers and administrators at CHS and readily offered advice for the school’s leader to improve their lived experiences. In this light, schools should invest in professional development centered on meeting the needs of culturally, socially, and linguistically diverse students to improve teacher practices and, ultimately, student achievement.
 The study may be accessed here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7709/jnegroeducation.85.3.0239
Response From Yolanda Tomlin
Yolanda Tomlin is a 15-year teacher with the New York City education department. For the last two years, she has worked to build and support young women through her school’s chapter of Saving Our Cinderellas:
Girl Talk: A Roundtable Discussion on Being a Black Girl in a N.Y.C. Public School
The student population of the Harriet Tubman Academy (HTA, a pseudonym) is 95 percent African-American and Latino. There are 27 high school teachers; 17 female teachers and 10 male teachers. Eighty-one percent of the teachers are African-American or Latino. This commentary was written following a roundtable discussion with seven seniors from HTA. The young ladies are all on-track seniors with an anticipated graduation date of June 2019.
When asked about their experience as students here at HTA, the young ladies said that they felt safe and had deliberately chosen to attend a small school. Most agreed that their experience here has generally been positive and believe that if they had attended a larger school, they would have felt “lost.” All seven girls feel that there is at least one adult in the building who they can speak to if they are having an issue. When asked about their experience in the classroom, however, the girls felt they are treated very differently from boys. If a boy is having a bad day, the teacher will pull him aside and ask if he’s OK. A girl, however, is dismissed as having an “attitude” and is told to just to get over it. There seems to be a code of behavior that is expected of each girl in the school. Girls are expected to work hard, get along with others, and be sexually pure, while boys are given multiple chances to succeed, are encouraged to be competitive, and are given space to sow their wild oats.
One of the things that came out of the conversation is the way that the staff polices the sexuality of the girls. For example, one young lady spoke about being the target of rumors of an alleged sexual relationship between her and a young man. She explained that rumors were spread among the entire school community, including the teachers, and she felt that she was treated differently by the teachers because of their perception of her after they heard the rumors. Through smart comments, innuendos, and snide remarks, the staff made their feelings about the situation known—but only to the young lady. The young man, an equal starring character in the rumor, was spared the judgment.
In a small school, relationships between students are well known, and the girls feel that they are labeled and subjected to subtle comments based on their private, sexual (real or imagined) relationships. It goes so far as one young lady who feels her entire high school persona has been defined by the young man she dated for three years. “I’ve done so much in this school for me to be known as more than so-and-so’s ex-girlfriend. I’m involved in multiple programs, I’m in the Top 10, and I walked into high school with a 73 average and am walking out with a 90. I’m more than somebody’s ex-girlfriend.” This labeling of the young ladies based on who they’re dating or dated was widespread and caused feelings of frustration and made them feel invisible and small when compared to the boys.
Is it possible to have a positive relationship with teachers? Each young lady said yes, they have had a positive interaction with a teacher. These positive interactions were centered on common interests, teachers relating to the students on a personal level and students feeling that their teachers actually care. According to one of the young ladies, she felt connected to the teacher who saw through her attitude and her public facade. She said that this teacher took the time to get to know the real her and not the identity this student chose to display to the world. Even in a situation where the teacher was providing correction, the young ladies all agreed that discipline was better received when the teacher actually showed that they cared. One young lady said that she thought no one noticed that she was staying away from school, but having that one teacher pull her to the side and speak to her about her absences made her feel like someone noticed her and made her want to do better.
A former assistant principal always advised us to “take children offstage” when we wanted them to really listen to us. These young ladies agreed that receiving correction privately from someone who they knew wanted to understand them and were willing to see past the attitude that they were giving to the world, was the key to them listening and receiving the message they needed to hear.
Our young ladies put on armor to protect them from the world. Even in schools, they are labeled, ostracized, and identified based on their personal relationships. Our girls feel ignored by their teachers and relegated to the shadows of the young men in their class. Often labeled as having an “attitude,” our girls really just don’t feel that anyone in the school cares enough about them to listen to what they are saying and instead want them to just get over it, put on a smile, and do better.
Thank you to Dr. Watson and to Yolanda Tomlin for their contributions!
Look for Part Two in a few days....
The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.