Zero-Tolerance for Black Girls

Ashlynn Profit, MPA, Staff Writer Brief Policy Perspectives

The video of a school police officer brutally assaulting a black girl drew the world’s attention to the harsh reality of zero-tolerance school discipline. Presumably most students are not subjected to this type of abuse, but the incident should call our attention to how our students, particularly black students, are unfairly punished at school.

The national conversation around school discipline tends to focus on black boys, but we cannot forget about black girls. Disparities in school discipline are worse for girls. According to the Department of Education, black boys are three times more likely to the be suspended than white boys, while black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls. Leaving girls out of the conversation on unfair school discipline is dangerous, and forgetting them only further pushes black girls down the school-to-prison pipeline that has become far too familiar.

Black students are culturally policed in schools, meaning administrators’ perceptions of their behavior are tainted with stereotypes, implicit biases, and low expectations.  Evans and Lester state that the behavior of students of color is often viewed “through a lens of pathology and criminology.” They argue that preconceived notions about students seep into instructors’ evaluations of their behavior and the punishments students receive. The structure, order, and compliance teachers need from black students are viewed as a means of safety, security, and fewer disruptions. The focus for black students is often keeping them out of trouble, rather than helping them get into college or start a career.

Compounding this problem is the widespread use of zero-tolerance policies in schools. Zero-tolerance school discipline policies result in removal from the classroom, or the school, for a set period of time. Under these policies, students can be removed from the classroom for talking back, using their cell phones, or falling asleep. Missed classroom time often leaves students behind in their schoolwork, which can lead them to further disengage in school. When law enforcement is involved, another set of barriers is created for students to overcome as they are pushed through the criminal justice system. This type of discipline is problematic for many reasons; it’s easily susceptible to personal biases, does not address the root causes of students’ behavioral issues, and negatively impacts the most underserved students.

Focus groups conducted by researchers at Columbia University show how bias and cultural factors uniquely impact black girls. The researchers found that zero-tolerance disciplinary policies push girls to disengage from school, and revealed that the “educational mission of the school is typically subordinated to the mandate to discipline and punish.” The ways in which black girls express themselves are viewed as defiant and combative as a result of cultural differences. The authors also discuss another layer of bias black girls face – femininity. Girls are encouraged to be quieter and more passive, and when black girls do not conform to that norm, they are punished.

Proponents of zero-tolerance school discipline policies believe they are an essential part of maintaining a healthy learning environment. However, zero-tolerance policies do not promote acceptance of differences, ignore the cultural capital each student brings to the classroom, and discourage critical thinking and creativity. These factors are essential to creating a healthy learning environment for students of all races and backgrounds.

Sometimes students act out and misbehave. However, instead of pushing them out of the classroom for talking back, breaking the dress code, using their cell phones, or other nonviolent offenses, schools should adopt more restorative school discipline practices that make the educational space a safe and healthy learning environment for all students. Policies and practices schools and districts should consider adopting include:

  1. Adopt restorative, rather than punitive disciplinary measures, such as the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports model, which addresses the root causes of disciplinary issues and addresses them, rather than forcing students to miss more class time. Create a support system for students who misbehave in the classroom, rather than pushing them through the criminal justice system.
  2. Teachers and administrators should learn the value of cultural differences and how to engage with students of different backgrounds continuously throughout the school year to learn about the students they teach and to confront their personal perceptions and biases.
  3. Remove discretion from disciplinary policies. States should mandate that districts and schools write disciplinary policies that outline clear modes of action for various student behaviors.
  4. Remove bias from school disciplinary policies. Schools should work with field experts to remove phrases such as, “correcting a student,” from disciplinary policies. Schools should also work with experts to decriminalize cultural behaviors engaged in by marginalized students.
  5. Require tracking of school discipline. Schools and teachers should be required to track each time they discipline a student in a database, and why that student was disciplined. A team of stakeholders should examine whether some students are being disciplined fairly, and which behaviors are being disciplined the most to develop a positive course of action.
  6. Decriminalize school dress code policies. Students should not miss class for failing to follow the school dress code.

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