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Teaching Opinion

Response: “What Does It Mean to Be Young, Black, and Female in America?”

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 27, 2019 14 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How should schools and districts respond to discipline disparities affecting black girls?

Part One of this special series guest-edited by Dr. Terri N. Watson examined the voices and perspectives of black girls. Dr. Watson and Yolanda Tomlin contributed responses in that first post. Dr. Watson, along with Drs. Yolanda Sealey- Ruiz and Venus Evans-Winters, also participated in a 10-minute conversation on my BAM! Radio Show about this topic.

Part Two featured practices schools and districts have and/or should implement to improve the schooling experiences of black girls. Gholdy Muhammad, Shannon R. Waite, Marquitta T. Speller, and Valerie Kinloch shared their commentaries.

The third and final part of this series will spotlight the work of education researchers and social-justice activists to improve the schooling experiences of black girls:

Response From Venus E. Evans-Winters

Venus E. Evans-Winters is an associate professor of education and faculty affiliate in Women & Gender Studies, African American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Illinois State University:

Black Girls & Education Research: When Racialized Gender Bias and Resistance Collide

Across the U.S., black school-age girls are twice as likely to be suspended from school as white girls, and we know that girls’ are not being pushed out of school for more frequent or serious misbehavior. Data reveal that most black girls are being singled out and pushed out for subjective or minor offenses (e.g., insubordination or “talking back,” dress-code violations, tardiness, etc.). Education researchers are just now beginning to understand the complexity of the black girl push-out problem, teacher bias, and how zero-tolerance policies affect black girls’ overall educational development and socio-emotional health.

In my own research, I seek to better understand black girls’ schooling experiences and the adversities that they may endure inside and outside of schools. Zero-tolerance policies in schools, policing in schools, and racially segregated schooling leave many black girls vulnerable to, or at higher-risk of, racial and gender harassment at the hands of adults in schools. Harsh discipline policies coupled with teacher bias place undue stress on black girls. Sadly, black girl students from working-class families, and/or black girls with disabilities, those who identify with the LGBTQ community, or nongender confirming youths are more likely to be negatively impacted by racialized gender bias in schools.

Studying black girls’ experiences in families, communities, and schools for nearly 20 years, I still find it interesting that education for most black girls serves as both a protective factor and risk factor. Protective factors can be defined as (1) characteristics or conditions present in the individual, family, community, or in larger society that can improve a girl’s health and well-being; or (2) supports that can help alleviate or mediate negative outcomes. Alternatively, risk factors are conditions present at the individual, family, community, or societal level that may cause undesirable life outcomes and threaten a girl’s health and well-being.

Oddly enough, a positive educational experience and resistance to oppression in school can actually be a protective factor for some black girls! From an education research perspective, teacher bias and black girls’ resistance strategies and agency deserve to be explored side by side. Nevertheless, discipline disparities in schools not only threaten black girls’ academic achievement but also their socio-emotional health. For example, segregation from the curriculum and one’s peers can lead to social isolation, contribute to peer-to-peer bullying and teacher-to-student bullying. Both positive peer relationships and academic rigor are very important to black girls’ development.

Furthermore, education research is beginning to reveal the long-term consequences of discipline disparities in schools. Education researchers and mental-health practitioners, like myself, witness firsthand in our data and in our offices the strong relationship between adult poverty, mental-health issues, and adult criminalization amongst black women marginalized from school. Stated differently, black girls’ schooling experiences do shape positively and negatively their social, economic, and health outcomes. Our school environments are simultaneously reproducing, contributing to, and reinforcing currently existing racial and gender disparities in our nation.

Drawing from current research in education and related social-science fields, we can make the following recommendations for policy and practice:

  1. Professional development for school staff, including administrators, teachers, and support staff, that centers on the unique learning and socio-emotional needs of black girls.

  2. Education and curriculum that acknowledge and celebrate the achievements and forms of resistance that black girls and women utilized to fight against racial and gender oppression in society.

  3. Culturally affirming education that decenters whiteness and encourages all students to explore the histories and traditions of black Americans and Africa in the U.S. and abroad.

  4. Recruit and retain more black women and men teachers, and other teachers of color, who are highly skilled and knowledgeable about the diverse cultural needs of black students and other students of color.

  5. Facilitate opportunities in school environments for black girls to develop their individual and collective leadership skills. Allow opportunities for girls (and boys) to foster positive peer relationships.

  6. Teachers should read black girls’ and women’s stories; visit and interact within black girls’ and women’s cultural spaces; and study the ideas of black scholars (not simply white diversity experts), so that they can foster authentic interactions and relationships with their students and students’ families.

  7. Put in place resources that serve to cultivate the whole child—mental health, physical and nutritional, financial education, etc.

  8. Advocate for more research and funding that supports initiatives to engage black girls in meaningful educational research that serves to explore and solve problems in their families, schools, and communities.

  9. Explore with black girls alternative forms of expression to showcase their ways of knowing, like spoken word, poetry, art, drum, story writing, dance, theater, etc.

  10. Stop criminalizing black girls’ bodies, ways of dress, language, hair, nails, and words!

Response From Zakiyah Ansari

Zakiyah Ansari is the advocacy director of the New York State Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), the leading statewide organization that has been fighting for educational justice in New York state. Zakiyah is the mother of eight children and grandparent of three. Zakiyah has dedicated almost 20 years of her life to the fight for educational justice and ending the oppression of black and brown communities:

To Honor Black Girl Joy, We Organize for Education Justice

Like many parents, my journey as an education justice advocate began with a focus on raising my own children and ensuring they each had the best education possible. I joined the Parent Teacher Association at their school in the 2000s, and that connected me with other parents. Through the meetings I regularly attended, I heard about many different inequities affecting our children. Our school doesn’t have art or music; we need guidance counselors; we need books; the safety agents treat our kids like crap. These shared experiences ignited my passion for education justice for all students and a deep commitment to ensure justice specifically for black and brown children. Education justice work has been an almost 20 year learning journey for me, and it includes a comprehensive set of policies that would support and advance black and brown children such as equitable funding, culturally responsive pedagogy, and reducing suspensions and promoting restorative alternatives.

While my children have never been suspended, I’ve heard hundreds of stories in New York and across the country of both the harshness and disparities of school suspensions of students who attend public and charter schools. With the explosion of privately run but publicly funded charters that “sweat the small stuff,” we have seen a militaristic culture in many of those schools, with black students as young as 5 years old suspended upwards of 30 times often with little to no accountability. There is no reason that 12-year-old black girls laughing and giggling at lunchtime should result in the strip search of their bodies. There is something terribly wrong when a school is suspicious that Black girl joy must mean they are on drugs. If you care about children and believe their educational experience should be a liberating one, then we must do something to change the status quo.

We also need equitable funding. Public schools don’t often have the funds needed to provide the very things that keep children engaged—like art, music, sports, and technology, a culturally rich curriculum, not to mention caring educators who reflect the students. When we starve schools of funding and resources we set them up for failure. Coupled with implicit bias and the downright racist policy of zero tolerance, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Let’s get this out of the way. Is there ever a time a student should be suspended? Yes. But suspensions don’t help the students learn or allow the teachers to teach them. At the end of the day, zero tolerance sends a message that children specifically black and brown can’t make mistakes. It leaves no room for alternative ways of discipline, and as we know from the research, zero tolerance funnels black and brown children into the school to prison pipeline.

A big part of our work at the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) is to provide relief from the educational racism that exists and begin to address and heal the trauma experienced by our children. At AQE, we have real solutions created by those most impacted with strong allies. In collaboration with the youth organization, Urban Youth Collaborative, we are committed to getting the Safe and Supportive Schools Bill passed this year.

The Safe and Supportive Schools Bill in New York is designed to decisively reduce suspensions in the hopes that instead of using suspension as the quick fix for wrongdoing, schools will become equipped to identify the root problem and help students to overcome it, rather than limiting students’ education and later opportunities while ignoring the real problem. We also encourage schools to use a restorative-justice framework, a whole school approach that will consider students and families’ input and will require teachers and staff to be trained. We must call out all state-sanctioned violence perpetrated on our black and brown girls and boys: disparities in suspensions, exclusionary curriculum, and the systemic underfunding of our public schools.

It is the mother in me that pushes me to protect all of our children, but it should be the compassion in all of us that leads us to fight for justice. We need all hands on deck—educators, parents, students—to build this movement together. I believe in the power of humanity, and while we wait for everyone else to catch up with ending the school to prison pipeline, we gonna keep organizing. Education Justice is Racial Justice!

Response From Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz

Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz is an associate professor of English education at Teachers College, Columbia University (TC). She is the founder of the Racial Literacy Project at TC:

Doing Self-Work & Doing Right by Black Girls

Before deeply investigating the disparities in their suspension data, school districts must first acknowledge and affirm the humanity of black girls. They must understand how their practice of disproportionately suspending them is an infringement on their humanity. Black girls deserve to be seen for their complexity and should not have certain aspects of their behavior stereotyped as defiant and deviant. Stereotypes flatten their experiences.

Districts must move away from hackneyed stereotypes and deficit models when describing the needs, desires, and areas for growth of black girls. To move away from this, an acceptance of and appreciation for their unique attributes connected to their ethnicity, cultural and familial practices, language diversity, social class, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other positionalities must be considered when discussing black girls and planning for their academic, emotional, and social success. Educators must also do deep self-work around their biases.

When I founded the Racial Literacy Roundtables 10 years ago, it was for the purpose of creating a space to talk about race. Psychologist Ken Hardy offers an eight-step model of working with youths, like black girls, who have and continue to experience wounds from racism. The steps to his model are: Affirmation and Acknowledgement, Create Space for Race, Racial Storytelling, Validation, The Process of Naming, Externalizing Devaluation, Counteract Devaluation, and Rechanneling Rage. It was clear to me, when the first group of black high school girls facilitated a roundtable on Dec. 9, 2015, at Teachers College, two months after a black girl at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina was viciously body-slammed and dragged across a classroom floor by a white male school security guard, that the young women were embodying Hardy’s framework. These four young women asked all of us: What does it mean to be young, black, and female in America? They held space with over 100 participants in the community to share their stories, validate their worth, and suggest to the teachers, clinicians, parents, and all others in the room what must be done to properly support the social, emotional, and academic success of black girls. They affirmed that we need to listen to black girls more. That next year, I dedicated the roundtable series to black girls speaking their truths.

Numerous researchers continue to provide insight into the discipline disparities affecting black girls: Kimberle Crenshaw, Monique Lane, Bettina Love, Monique Morris, Terri Watson, and Venus Evans-Winters are a few scholars whose work challenges the overdisciplining and undereducating of black girls. They have shed light on the frequency and severity of disciplinary interventions for black girls because they are perceived to be loud and unmanageable. These beliefs give teachers and school officials permission to apply harsh discipline that is intended to control the movement of black girls’ bodies, as was witnessed in the 2015 case of a Milwaukee teacher who cut off the braid of a 1st grader in front of the class because she was playing with the beads in her hair [1]. In the end, the 1st grader was removed from the class, and the teacher only received a $75 fine for disorderly conduct.

The (mis)reading of black girls’ bodies and movements leads to harsh disciplinary actions and, often, suspensions. For school personnel to be imaginative in new ways to relate to black girls, they must engage in the archeology of the self—an excavation to discover where negative feelings about black girls live within them. Before they engage in sanctions and damaging practices against black girls, they must first look within.

We live in a racist society. At the federal and national levels, we are aware of the mistreatment black girls endure in their educational settings. The second Obama administration was moving ahead in powerful ways toward funded initiatives that responded to this reality, but we have once again regressed to Draconian zero-tolerance policies that disproportionately affect black girls. We all must call for a commitment from school districts to invest in eliminating barriers to black girls’ academic and social success. For one, districts that enroll a large number of black girls need robust professional development for their teachers and staff that will lead to meaningful change and support of black girls. In addition, districts need to be more deliberate in creating a college-going culture for their black female students. State accountability measures (for example, a possible My Sister’s Keeper initiative) that are modeled after the national My Brother’s Keeper initiative are a good and just place to start.

[1] See: Teacher Cuts off Girl’s Braid in Front of Class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Aq1WeS6VCs

Hardy, K.V. (2013). Healing the hidden wounds of racial trauma. Journal of Reclaiming Children and Youth, 22(1), pp. 24-28, spring.

Thank you to Venus, Zakiyah, and Yolanda for their contributions to this third-and-final post in the series. And thanks again to Dr. Terri N. Watson guest-editing all three columns!

Look for the next question-of-the-week in a few days.

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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.