BOSTON — Black girls in Boston’s schools face much harsher school discipline than their white peers but are often overlooked in school reform efforts, a new report says.
The report, by the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS), found that the number of disciplinary cases involving black girls were 11 times more than cases involving their white counterparts, despite there being less than three times as many black students in Boston schools.
“When it comes to school discipline, black girls face a greater risk of racial discrimination and disparity than any other group,” said Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, the executive director of CISPS and professor of Law at Columbia University and UCLA. Crenshaw is the lead author on the report.
According to the national report — which analyzed data from the 2011–2012 school year from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights — and highlighted Boston and New York City, black girls are disproportionately affected in all school discipline cases in Boston, including in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspension, expulsion, referral to law enforcement, and school-related arrests.
This report comes on the heels of a report released last year by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights School Discipline that detailed how black and Latino students, in general, face disproportionate discipline in Massachusetts schools and an earlier initiative by Boston Public Schools to focus on enrollment outcomes for black and Latino male students.
Boston school officials say that since the 2011-2012 school year — the last school year for which discipline data is available from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights — the district has committed to addressing unequal discipline along race lines.
Data from Boston Public Schools (BPS) shows that since 2011-2012 suspensions of black students overall have decreased annually, yet challenges remain.
“We know that African-American males and females are disproportionately represented in suspension data,” said Jodie Elgee, director of Boston Public Schools Counseling and Intervention Center. “Our implementation of Chapter 222 is intended to deal with that.”
In August 2012, Massachusetts passed a law, commonly referred to as Chapter 222, to prevent unnecessary exclusion of students from school. BPS has developed an updated Code of Conduct aligned to Chapter 222 rules that requires progressive measures of discipline before school suspensions and continued educational services in the result of a suspension or expulsion.
Chapter 222 went into effect in July 2014 and was not reflected in this study.
Discipline, Suspension And Expulsion Across Demographics
In 2011-2012, black girls made up 61 percent of all girls disciplined in Boston schools, while comprising only 28 percent of district enrollment. White girls, on the other hand, who represent 15 percent of the school district, made up only 5 percent of the girls disciplined.
Discipline is defined as out-of-school suspension, expulsion, referral to law enforcement, and school-related arrests. In Boston schools that year, 340 cases of discipline occurred for black female students compared to 30 cases of discipline for white female students.
This disparity stems from harsh disproportions of expulsion and suspension along race lines.
Of the total number of girls expelled from Boston schools in 2011-2012, 63 percent were black students. No white girls were expelled that year. Assuming a single white girl had been expelled, black girls would have been expelled from Boston schools at a rate of 10 to one, the report says.
During the same timeframe, black girls were suspended at school at almost 12 times the rate of white girls in Boston Public Schools.
Girls who are suspended face a significantly greater likelihood of dropping out of school and are more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system, face unemployment or engage in low-wage work, the report says. All of which can have particularly negative impacts for women.
The National Women’s Law Center reports that the income gap between dropouts and high school graduates is greater for women than it is for men.
Unequal discipline may be one of many factors that lead black girls to drop out of school. Others may include relationships with peers, social disorganization of neighborhoods and the safety risks associated with school. Other factors are more specifically gendered — such as familial responsibilities, domestic responsibilities and the messages girls receive about the importance of education.
“Girls more than anybody else have taken up the burden that was created by mass incarceration,” said Crenshaw, lead author of the report. “With so many parents not able to take care of their children, it often falls to women and often young women who aren’t working to pick that up.”
Especially given the economic dependence of so many black children on a female wage earner, the report says, unequal discipline as one of the many factors that can lead black girls to drop out of high school is of “critical socioeconomic concern.”
Girls Face Specific Challenges
Despite data pointing to unequal discipline of black female students, Crenshaw says little effort has been put into focusing on achievement and discipline problems that girls face.
“The focus on girls is dreadfully lacking and it actually creates what I call a cycle of misinformation and exclusion,” said Crenshaw.
She says that girls, and black girls specifically, are often not included in research agendas or public policy discussion because of an incorrect assumption that they “are doing OK.” Crenshaw cites recent initiatives including My Brother’s Keeper and Boston’s Opportunity and Equity report as examples of programs that focus on racial achievement, but do not include girls in their scope.
The exclusion, she says, leads to less information and therefore fewer opportunities to intervene where necessary.
“On the rare occasion where there is a founder or a partner who wants to focus on girls, the information that is available to them to help them think about what kinds of programs might work … just doesn’t exist,” said Crenshaw. She says any set of interventions designed to advanced the well being of youth of color should take both boys and girls into consideration.
“The notion that we can have a gender exclusive intervention for boys that will trickle down to girls is just not the case,” said Crenshaw.
The report included testimonies from girls in New York and Boston schools about factors that affected their school experience.
Girls indicated that zero-tolerance school environments — environments with strict disciplinary codes if students break the rules for any reason — created settings where discipline is prioritized over educational attainment. Misconceptions about girls of color and cultural insensitivity run rampant they said, and contributed to overdiscipline at school.
“There are stereotypes that are so prevailing that people think they see things that might not actually be happening,” said Crenshaw. “[Black] girls are more likely to be seen as being disruptive, or having an attitude or being defiant. That’s one of the more common reasons why a black girl is sent to the principal’s office.”
Some girls indicated that zero-tolerance policies at schools could exacerbate the sense of vulnerability experienced by girls because they feared they would be penalized for defending themselves against aggressive behavior.
For instance, when one participant stood up for herself, she says violence and harsh punishments followed.
This boy kept spitting those little spitballs through a straw at me while we were taking a test. I told the teacher, and he told him to stop, but he didn’t. He kept on doing it. I yelled at him. He punched me in the face, like my eye. My eye was swollen. I don’t remember if I fought him. That’s how it ended. We both got suspended. I was like, ‘Did I get suspended?’ I was, like, a victim.
Addressing School Discipline
In recent years, Boston Public Schools has conducted studies analyzing trends among male students of color, such as “Analyzing Enrollment, Outcomes, and Excellent Schools for Black and Latino Male Students in the Boston Public Schools,” which examined four years of school data to focus on eliminating achievement and opportunity gaps for black and Latino male students, and participating in the national My Brother’s Keeper initiative. But there are no similar initiatives for female students, according to BPS’s Elgee.
“There is nothing specifically that is a district-wide initiative,” said Elgee. “We at the counseling center are in the process of developing an initiative which we hope to implement in the fall, specifically targeting girls.”
The Columbia report recommends that schools develop more robust protocols to ensure that schools are an environment free of sexual harassment and bullying, expand counseling and conflict intervention strategies to keep girls away from the juvenile justice system, and ensure that black girls and other girls of color are considered in policy research, advocacy and programmatic interventions.
“The data itself is only going to do so much. The data will just help us identify where there is a problem,” said Crenshaw. “In order to intervene there has to be public will that’s developed to address this problem and public will comes from people being aware, first of all, that there is a problem.”