A new report outlines the obstacles facing Black girls in America’s school systems – and demands that advocates, policymakers, and educators do better to foster safe spaces for Black girls to learn and grow.

Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” was released yesterday by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies. Researchers for the study used data and personal interviews with young women of color in Boston and New York to expose how racism, sexism, and class issues erase Black girls’ experiences in the school system, limit their educational opportunities, and marginalize their needs, while pushing them into low-wage work, unemployment, and incarceration.

“Gender and race norms place black girls at risk,” said the report’s lead author, Kimberlé Crenshaw, in its launching webinar yesterday.

Often, conversations about race in education focus on the achievement gap between Black and white boys, but many efforts refuse to acknowledge that Black girls experience these same gaps between themselves and their white counterparts – and often in greater numbers. Sometimes, the magnitude of racial disparities for girls is greater than that of boys, despite the minute attention paid to black girls’ lives.

The report highlights the negative impacts of zero-tolerance school systems and punitive disciplinary philosophies on girls, such as how law enforcement and security personnel make girls feel less safe. “It feels like you’re in jail,” one interviewee told researchers. “It’s like they treat you like animals, because they think that’s where you’re going to end up.” Girls interviewed for the study also cited sexual harassment as part of their educational experience, and reported that administrators did little to protect them from harassment and violence. Some were punished for engaging in self-defense or asked to leave classrooms where they were being harassed in order to make the disruptions stop.

Black girls are also targeted unfairly by administrators for suspension and expulsion. In the 2011-2012 school year, for example, 12 percent of all African American girls in pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12 were suspended, a suspension rate six times the rate for white girls and higher than rates for white, Asian, and Latino boys. In some school districts, all the girls suspended were Black. In one, Black girls were 53 times more likely to be expelled than their white counterparts.

Schools that aren’t able to properly support students with children or who have experienced trauma also create hostile environments for Black girls, who play a larger role in caretaking than their male counterparts and are more likely to have experienced intimate partner violence. The failure of schools to examine these factors is based in sexism, but efforts to protect Black boys at the expense and exclusion of Black girls also happen through advocacy work and even government initiatives.

“As public concern mounts for the needs of men and boys of color through initiatives like the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper,” Crenshaw said in a statement, “we must challenge the assumption that the lives of girls and women—who are often left out of the national conversation—are not also at risk.”

According to the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 2014 report on sex-segregated K-12 public schools, almost all of the 106 all-boy and all-girl public schools serve a majority of African American and/or Latina populations as do 43 percent of coed schools with sex-segregated classrooms.  These schools often enforce dangerous gender norms and provide more resources for boys, thus putting girls at a distinct disadvantage. Dr. Sue Klein, FMF’s study director, reminds equity advocates that “the new Title IX single-sex guidance from the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and other protections such as State Equal Rights Amendments prohibit sex discrimination in education and that it is exceedingly difficult to justify excluding boys or girls from valuable programs, just because of their sex.”

Education can be one of the most powerful factors defining a young person’s future. Conversations about the “school-to-prison” pipeline – a system in which Black students are criminalized and otherwise pushed out of school and at risk for incarceration – have, for too long, rendered girls’ experiences invisible. The groundbreaking Black Girls Matter report makes an indisputable fact that Black girls, as well as boys, have specific needs that should be addressed by our education system and policies that shape young people’s lives.

Media Resources: African American Policy Forum, 2/4/15; Feminist Majority Foundation, 2/6/14, 10/1/14, 12/23/14

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