Black girls disciplined in school more often than Whites

In the last normal school year before the pandemic, Black girls in Massachusetts were disciplined in school at more than three times the rate of white girls. Often, Black girls say, they are punished for the same offenses for which white students are not.

Melanie Rush, director of research and policy at the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said in many cases Black girls get in trouble for responding to what they perceive as a “hostile or unwelcoming school environment.” The Massachusetts Appleseed Center recently released a report that combined data with in-depth interviews of 11 female students of color in grades seven through twelve.

“They felt like their curriculums weren’t really reflective of their own identities and their own histories. They felt like there were stereotypes being placed upon them, that they were immediately seen as louder or aggressive whenever they were just trying to express themselves,” Rush said. “There is this disconnect between the students and their teachers, and then that leads to discipline.”

Rush spoke about the research on this week’s Codcast along with Qai Hinds, a rising high school senior in Weston who was part of the community advisory board that worked on the report.  The two outlined the unique challenges faced by girls of color, especially those in predominantly white schools, where many feel alienated from the dominant school culture.

“So many girls spoke about how they ended up just sort of shrinking into themselves after discipline and that they felt like they had to quiet themselves, that they couldn’t speak up. They couldn’t speak out for fear of being told that you are disrespectful, you are wrong, when really all they’re trying to do is engage in the classroom,” Rush said.

Hinds said as a first-generation American whose family comes from Trinidad and Tobago, she feels like her predominantly White school offers her less support than her White counterparts when it comes to her college search as well as her advocacy for students of color.

Hinds recalled one interview where a girl said her sister got expelled, then a month later the girl herself was suspended – which Hinds attributed to an environment where the girl was viewed with suspicion because of her sister. “Imagine a student coming to a classroom and immediately the teacher is reacting more hostile or more on guard with that student,” she said.

One concrete area where discipline appeared disparate regards girls who raised concerns that school dress codes were enforced differently against girls of different races or body types. Black girls are seen as more adult, they’re seen as more mature, and they’re often sexualized at much younger ages than White girls, which is extremely inappropriate,” Rush said.

Both Hinds and Rush said girls of color need to see themselves portrayed more in classroom curricula and in the school staff.

“You will have a world history class and you have a Black history class, and it’ll be more selective,” Hinds said. “I think when it comes to curriculum, we as a society need to finally admit that quote unquote Black history is all of our history. It’s not separate.”

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Rush said even Black History Month is often taught with a focus on Black men, not women, and without connecting Black history to modern social issues. They couldn’t see themselves in what they were learning. It didn’t feel relevant to them,” Rush said of the girls interviewed.

Hinds said there is also a need for more racially diverse role models in schools, whether teachers or counselors. “If you are going from class to class to class and all you see are White teachers, that’s not only emotionally detrimental, but girls of color have a hard time maintaining and building identity because of that,” she said.

The report pushes for numerous policy recommendations, including banning suspensions and expulsions for young students and for any students for dress code violations; creating a disciplinary culture that keeps students in class; recruiting more diverse teachers; and giving students a greater chance to be heard.