On April 22, 2013, Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old Black girl with good grades and a spotless school record, decided to mix some household chemicals in a water bottle on the grounds of her Florida high school as part of a science experiment. The project on Bartow High School grounds caused a small reaction -- a firecracker-like "pop" and some smoke. There were no injuries or damage – except to the water bottle – from Wilmot’s amateur science test but the aftermath was plenty shocking.In the hours and days that followed, Wilmot was arrested, charged as an adult with possession and discharge of a weapon on school grounds, taken to a juvenile assessment center, and expelled from school and sent to an alternative school for students with behavioral problems with only five weeks left in the school year. Over a year later Wilmot graduated high school – she was allowed to return to Bartow High School for her senior year – yet still carries two felonies and an arrest record for the crime of unbridled curiosity and a love of science.
There are a multitude of problems associated with zero tolerance policies and practices. Chief among them is the overly harsh and punitive punishments imposed on students of color. Activists denounce these “get tough” policies as a major contributor to the prison pipeline—pushing Black and Latino children out of school and instead into the legal system.
Just as zero tolerance crosses socioeconomic lines, so it crosses gender lines. But most of the discourse revolves around boys.
There is not a ton of national advocacy centered on youth of color and of the little there is it’s firmly planted on boys of color. How we save them, improve their opportunities for success, and change the trajectory of their lives. This mindset is so embedded that it’s become the norm. Then earlier this year it hit pay dirt: the President unveiled an initiative – “My Brother’s Keeper” – to address the systemic barriers faced by Black and Latino boys and young men of color.
Yet even after more than a thousand activists stepped forward and urged the President to add women and girls to the White House’s signature program, on Monday “My Brother’s Keeper” was expanded to the nation’s largest school districts. Its mission: to improve access to preschool and gifted courses for boys of color; reduce suspensions and expulsions for boys of color; increase graduation rates for boys of color; and provide targeted resources and academic services for boys of color.
As the mother of a Black boy, this hits close to home. I know all too well how Black boys can be racially profiled in our public schools. But as the Wilmot story attests, Black girls are not exempt from overly zealous discipline.
A groundbreaking report from the African American Policy Forum, Race, Gender and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls discusses in painstaking detail “how Black girls are disproportionately affected by punitive, zero-tolerance policies that push marginalized children out of school and toward an increased likelihood of dropout, unemployment, and incarceration.”
And here lies the crux of the problem. With the exception of cases like Kiera Wilmot and the garden variety shock and outrage that accompanies a Black six-year-old girl handcuffed and arrested for throwing a tantrum, how zero tolerance and disparate discipline impacts Black girls remains unaddressed and unresolved. Scholar and social justice advocate Dr. Monique Morris, author of the AAPF report, offers a compelling and disturbing account:
In discussions with young women who have dropped out of school, or who are attempting to return to school following a period of incarceration, it is becoming clearer that we must think about the multiple ways in which racism and patriarchy marginalize black girls in their learning environments—places that have become hostile learning environments for girls who are too frequently marginalized for acts of “defiance” or for being too “loud” and aggressive in ways that make them nonconforming to society’s gender expectations. For too many black girls, schools are places where they are subject to unwanted sexual harassment, where they are judged and punished for who they are, not necessarily for what they have done, and where their experiences have been overshadowed by a male-dominated discourse on dignity in schools.In a recent focus group on the subject, a young woman spoke of dropping out of school after she noticed that her teachers were more likely to help the males than the females. She and other young women described scenarios where school faculty would positively intervene when their male counterparts failed to complete assignments or attend class. These teachers seemed determined to “save” the boys; but when girls behaved in similar ways, the young women described how they were met with harsh, exclusionary punishment or no response at all.Before you can solve a problem you have to acknowledge a problem exists. Black boys dominate the discussion and White House initiatives – but there is no question that Black girls are hurting and suffering. Even though the gender gap is not of great public concern, the gender divide in the epidemic of suspensions is glaring and impossible to deny.
Our Black girls and boys need nurturing and supportive learning environments – Black girls and boys are deserving of resources that eliminate obstacles to a quality education. The message needs to be that all youth of color – brothers and sisters – are valued and important. The White House should lead the way, encouraging schools to adopt practices that improve school climate so that all students of color have the opportunity to feel safe, supported, and motivated. Education is not a zero sum game.