From Preschool to Prison: The Criminalization of Black Girls

A 6-year-old sits on a swing at a child development center in Las Vegas, September 13, 2017.

The “school-to-prison pipeline” discussion often neglects the ways in which black girls are disproportionately and unfairly disciplined by the U.S. education system. Recent data show that schools are expelling and suspending black girls at alarming rates, which can lead to a harmful cycle of criminality that persists throughout their adult lives.

Now, the Trump administration is considering rolling back Obama-era guidance on how to discipline students without discriminating on the basis of their race, color, national origin, or disability status. Instead of making it easier for schools to funnel children into a system of poverty and incarceration, the administration should work to ensure that our education system addresses racial and gender bias in schools, offers sufficient mental health resources, and provides equal opportunity to all students.

The pipeline discussion often overlooks black girls

The school-to-prison pipeline is the path through which unfair treatment of adolescents leads to involvement in the criminal justice system. However, efforts to correct this problem often fail to include black girls, who are six times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their white counterparts. In order to produce effective change, it is crucial to recognize who is affected by these unfair disciplinary actions in schools. Suspensions of black girls are often driven by teacher bias and insufficient mental health resources; they also occur when students break school rules that are inherently racially biased. For example, a charter school in Massachusetts recently suspended two black sisters for wearing natural braided hairstyles, which violated the school dress code.

Others face not only suspension, but arrest for violating vague laws. In South Carolina, a “disturbing schools” statute prohibits behavior deemed to be “disorderly or boisterous”; recently, this law was used to justify the violent removal of a black girl from her classroom in a Columbia high school simply because she refused to surrender her cell phone.

These disciplinary practices damage social-emotional and behavioral development; strip away important educational experiences; interfere with the process of identifying and addressing underlying issues; and contribute to increased family stress and burden.

For black girls who face arrest due to inordinately harsh disciplinary practices, the school-to-prison pipeline creates a cyclical effect. One study found that over 70 percent of youths with an arrest record later dropped out of high school. Beyond feeling inadequately prepared for the transition back to a more rigorous academic setting, the vast majority of justice-involved youth have a history of trauma or mental health disorders. High rates of sexual victimization in juvenile facilities only exacerbate these challenges. Black youth are 30 percent more likely to report sexual victimization by facility staff and female youth report more than twice the rate of forced sexual activity with another youth at the facility. Overall, placing students in juvenile detention makes it more difficult for them to complete school, fulfill their career goals, and maintain their mental health. As a result, some states have recorded rearrest rates as high as 85 percent within five years of youth offenders leaving juvenile detention.

Harmful disciplinary practices begin as early as preschool

While discussions about the school-to-prison pipeline tend to focus on adolescents, many black girls are enveloped in this cycle before they are old enough to tie their own shoes. While they make up just 20 percent of the nation’s female preschool population, black girls constitute 54 percent of female preschoolers who have received more than one out-of-school suspension. Research indicates that society falsely perceives black children as being less innocent than their white peers—even as toddlers. As early as age 5, black girls are viewed by adults as more knowledgeable about sex and adult topics, less in need of nurture and support, and significantly older than white girls of the same age. The excessive discipline black children experience for offenses such as disruptive behavior and tantrums makes them 10 times more likely to face discipline, retention, or even incarceration later in life.

The Trump administration wants to roll back protections for black girls in school

In 2011, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice launched a collaborative project to promote evidence-based school discipline practices that foster “safe, supportive, and productive learning environments while keeping students in school.” Over the next five years, the agencies convened practitioners, developed resource guides, offered grants, released a capstone report, and issued federal guidance. The guidance, in particular, directed schools to review and potentially revise their discipline policies in order to ensure that they do not cause intentional discrimination or disparate impact. It also offered specific examples of situations in which a school would not be in compliance with constitutional requirements or federal law. In practice, this allowed schools to better recognize the damage their disciplinary policies have on black girls and revise those policies to create a safer and fairer educational environment for all students.

Yet rather than build on these accomplishments, the Trump administration is reportedly considering reversing the Obama-era protections, which would exacerbate the challenges that black youth already face in our education system and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead of rolling back the progress made under the previous administration, the Trump administration should commit itself to replacing archaic suspension and expulsion policies with thoughtful alternatives. and to ensuring that black girls—and all children—have access to a safe, high-quality education.

Mackenzie Chakara is an intern for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.