Black Girls and Zero Tolerance: A Call to Action

African American girl playing in a tunnel

Barbara Perez headshot

Guest Contributor: Barbara Perez, President and CEO of the YWCA Greater Cincinnati

In Cincinnati, African-American girls are five times more likely to be suspended from school than white boys and nearly nine times more likely to be suspended than other girls. Nationally, black girls are suspended from school more than any other group of girls and at a much higher rate than white, Asian and Latino boys.

This is one of the consequences of “zero-tolerance” policies which use suspension, expulsion and even arrests in response to a range of school-based incidents. While originally enacted to address cases of violent behavior and drug use, the Department of Education recently reported that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are now passed out for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect.

Many school districts and states, including Ohio, are beginning to understand that these policies often carry some very negative unintended consequences. When students are removed from the classroom as a disciplinary measure, the odds increase dramatically that they will eventually drop out of school or become involved in the juvenile justice system —both contributing to unemployment and poverty. These policies do little or nothing to address the underlying causes of behavioral issues.

Girls are profoundly affected by such punitive discipline in ways not understood because their voices have been largely under-represented in research. At YWCA Greater Cincinnati, we recognize that the emotional and physical needs of girls are inherently different than boys, and we must understand those needs in order to keep them invested in their education. Their success is critical to the quality of life of our children and our city’s long term prosperity.

For example, we know that many young women, particularly African American girls, are impacted by sexual trauma and violence, sexual harassment at school, family obligations such as parenting or caring for siblings, and teen pregnancy. Punishing them for responding to or defending themselves against aggressive behavior or bullying undermines the very security and confidence they desperately need from school.

In many cases, fighting and other conflicts are resolved through police intervention and even prosecution. Commonly known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” this practice only contributes to the disproportionate involvement of black girls in the juvenile justice system and feeds the increasing and enormous overpopulation of women in Ohio’s prison system.

Conflicts with such gendered nuances would be better addressed with counseling, mental health services, in-school suspension or other restorative techniques. According to a 2015 report by the African American Policy Forum and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, when girls feel as though their schools are ignoring their needs — or worse yet, punishing them for acting out — they become disengaged with school all together, and drop out rates increase.

Drop out rates are a particularly acute problem for young women. In Cincinnati, the income gap between dropouts and high school graduates is greater for women than it is for men. Only 40 percent of teen mothers ever finish high school and less than two percent will earn a college degree. Since the educational achievement of children is largely connected to the socioeconomic standing of their parents, it stands to reason that many children will never escape the cycle of poverty.

At YWCA Greater Cincinnati, our mission is to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.   A critical step in fulfilling that mission is to help raise the voices of girls and young women. If we do not address the overwhelming gap in school discipline for young black women, we can never hope to reduce poverty in our city.

There is a critical need for policy reform based on a deeper level of understanding of the real issues behind behaviors that result in disciplinary action. Reform must include training that enables our teachers and administrators to better address these issues through tailored interventions, not just punishment.

Opponents of zero-tolerance policy reform claim that any loosening will create unsafe environments in our schools. We must never compromise the safety of our children and do not advocate lowering standards.  Groups other than young women face significant challenges as well. But girls and young women are at greatest risk. With understanding and taking steps to more effectively address the root problems they are experiencing, we can help everyone stay engaged in the learning process and on the path to graduation.

This is a community-wide issue. We recommend that our city’s policy leaders, administrators, teachers, parents and, most importantly, students come together to begin a dialogue aimed at finding effective alternatives to punitive disciplinary policies.

Together, we can begin an essential conversation about how we can help all students, regardless of race and gender, stay in school and reach their full potential – and start to work on solutions.  The stakes are high.  But our opportunity is great.  And our cause — the future of our children and our city — could not be more important.

Author: Verna L. Williams

Interim Dean, Nippert Professor of Law, co-founder and co-director of Cincinnati Law's Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Professor Williams joined Cincinnati Law's faculty in 2001. She teaches Constitutional Law; Gender and the Law; and Family Law. Her research examines the intersection of race and gender in law and society.

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