The Criminalization of Black Girls—and How We Can End It

By Kenrya Rankin Oct 30, 2015

From the 17-year-old who was knocked unconscious by a school resource officer in Tampa, to the Baltimore middle-school student who needed 10 stitches after a cop hit her with a baton, to this week’s #AssaultAtSpringValley, black girls are under siege in their schools. As cell phone videos increasingly make their way to the Internet and go viral, viewers are being subjected to spirit-crushing clips of police officers inflicting violence on their black bodies, treating young girls as if they are somehow superhuman and sub-human at the same time.

In the shadow of this week’s events in Columbia we sat down with Advancement Project’s Thena Robinson-Mock. As the director of the civil rights organization’s Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track program, she has devoted years to examining the school-to-prison pipeline. Here, we discuss the role police play in schools, what a discipline program should look like and how we can make our schools safer for girls of color.

Studies show that Black girls are disproportionately impacted by zero-tolerance discipline policies and that attending policed schools makes them even more likely to enter the juvenile justice system. Why?

We have a fundamental problem with the way we envision discipline in our schools. Rather than looking at discipline as a way to punish young people, we need to look at it as an opportunity to teach and support them. What we have seen over the past couple of days is what happens when you have highly-policed school environments. And I think it really raises the question: What is the role of the police officer in the school setting? We would argue that there really isn’t a role. When police are present in schools, we see higher rates of arrest, particularly involving black and Latino youth. And increasingly we are seeing the ways in which highly policed environments impact black girls, a population that we have often overlooked and ignored. 

Though Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott made some questionable statements during his press conference about the Spring Valley High incident, he did notably give a candid opinion on South Carolina’s “Disturbing Schools Law,” saying that it has been abused and that it is too wide-ranging. How do laws like these contribute to the criminalization of children of color?

Vague infractions such as “failure to comply," “disobedience,” “disorderly conduct” or “willful defiance” are really at the heart of the collateral consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline. Their subjective nature allows racial bias to creep in. What we know is that it’s not that black students behave any differently than anyone else, but that the punishments are applied more harshly for those students. [Also], these kinds of vague infractions are a problem because we are talking about suspending, expelling and arresting young people for infractions that are not even crimes at all. When we start looking into the underlying root causes of some of these actions, we see that it’s child and adolescent behavior playing out. If a young person is not following the rules or acting out, we often find that there’s more to the story. And the problem with zero tolerance is that you never have an opportunity to get to the root of the story. That’s one of the reasons why we call for practices such as restorative justice at schools. 

How would an ideal school discipline policy look? What role should teachers and administrators play?

When we look at schools where young people thrive, it’s usually in an environment that is not highly policed. It’s one where young people are allowed to express themselves and there are adults who are supportive of that self-expression. We know that schools that have more supportive staff—counselors, social workers, psychologists and even behavior interventionalists—are where we see more success. And it’s really about creating an environment when young people and adults can build trusting relationships. Given the many challenges law enforcement has in communities of color, we know that that trust is broken. And we also know that there are differing opinions about their role. We find that for officers in school settings—particularly where there are predominantly black and brown students—their role is less on the protect and serve side, and more on the profiling and policing side. And that has no place in our classrooms. We are pushing for environments that are supportive and safe. We don’t mean safety with an armed guard, we mean strong relationships between adults and young people where there’s a lot of trust and mutual respect. That’s the kind of safety that young people are asking for. 

How do you respond to people who say officers should be in schools, but they just need more training?

The challenge with advocating for more funding for training is that when we do that, we legitimize their presence in schools. And that keeps this apparatus going. We need to think about what is it that we’re trying to address. It sounds like we want to make sure young people are redirecting behavior that might be problematic, like we’re trying to make sure that young people are accountable. There are ways to do that without bringing in police officers. Without bringing in handcuffs. Without dehumanizing young people and placing them in the juvenile justice system. One of the reasons police are often legitimized in schools is that we have a lack of resources for our teachers. Rather than teachers being able to lean on a supportive staff or another school official in the building, the cop becomes the next best person to intervene. We need to think about ways to better resource our schools. We have delegated our disciplinary authority to cops and it’s simply out of line and they have no place in our schools.

What other types of programming can be implemented in schools to disrupt this cycle?

Schools that have strong restorative justice practices and conflict resolution mechanisms do very well. Those practices can be implemented when there are conflicts or when there are just underlying issues that a young person might be exhibiting on campus. Those are the kinds of alternatives to punitive discipline that we really push. There’s a lot of funding that goes into having police in schools. Those funds should be redirected to supportive programs. I also think—and this speaks to the unique lens of looking at the school-to-prison pipeline through a gendered justice analysis and an intersectional analysis—we really have to make sure that we are supporting girls. We know that girls are often more burdened with familial obligations and that they experience high incidences of interpersonal violence and sexual trauma. So then the question begs: What kinds of staff are we putting in our schools to address those very unique challenges and issues? It’s up to our educational settings to adapt to respond appropriately to the young people who are entering their doors.

What can our readers do to stem the tide of our children being pushed from their classrooms to jail cells?

We have to shift our framework around law enforcement and the juvenile justice system. Rather than seeing cops as teaching young people a lesson, we need to recognize the consequences of a young person having contact with them. We also need to ask how much districts are spending to have them there and what protocols are in place. In a lot of places we are spending a whole lot of money but have no limits whatsoever on what officers can do. These are public dollars—we can advocate that they be redirected to more supportive services

Are there any current projects or campaigns people can align their efforts with?

I would definitely direct people to Advancement Project’s Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track website, It has a lot of resources that can help them think about the policy changes they might want to see in their schools, as well as links to our local partners.