Collaborating with Black Girls to Improve an Education System that Punishes Them Disproportionately
By: Carolyn Stetler
When Rutgers—University Newark researcher Jamelia Harris set out to study an educational system that disproportionately punishes and criminalizes Black girls, she relied on the girls themselves to help find answers.
“Adults make the mistake of thinking we know better than students how to remedy race and gender inequity in our school system. But it’s so important that we center the wisdom and expertise of young people, particularly those most marginalized,” says Harris. “We have to ask them about their experiences, within and beyond the school system, about what they think should be done. They are the experts.’’
Harris cites copious research on racist and sexist stereotypes that can lead educators to penalize Black girls for being perceived as loud, unfeminine, adult-like, and defiant. According to the U.S. Department for Education and Civil Rights, Black girls are punished at a rate four times higher than non-Black girls and non-Black boys, often for the same infractions. She mentions the many social media videos that have gone viral in the past five years, showing Black girls being physically abused and violated by their teachers, administrators, security guards and police, including a six-year-old Florida girl who was arrested, handcuffed and charged with battery for throwing a temper tantrum in school.
“In public schools across the nation, the voices of Black girls are often silenced and punished, their talents misrecognized and denied; their bodies surveilled and overpoliced; their most critical needs remain unmet,’’ wrote Harris, a Robert Curvin Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Joseph C. Cornwall Center at Rutgers-Newark.
Learning about Black girls' experiences from their point-of-view is key to creating change. “They deserve to be treated as partners, as shared stakeholders and collaborators. Their brilliance and knowledge must be affirmed in the work to improve our school system,’’ she contends.
Before the pandemic, Harris spent two years working with an after-school group of 15 “chronically disciplined” Black girls at a Southern California high school five minutes away from the school she attended in her hometown. “It had a reputation of being a school where there were high amounts of discipline problems. I was really drawn to wanting to understand the student narratives there,’’ she says.
Together, Harris and the group named their research collaboration The Concrete Rose Project. She drew from their work to outline recommendations and exercises implemented by the school to help educators gain a better understanding of the lives and needs of Black girls and how to support them. She compiled the results in a paper titled “When they Don’t See Us: Using Intersectionality to Examine Black Girls Discipline Experiences.” It was published in 2022 in the book “Critical Theories for School Psychology and Counseling,'' a guide book.
Harris believes that educators —the majority of whom are middle class white women, according to national statistics — must grasp how anti-black racism and sexism overlap to create harm in Black girls’ lives and schooling experiences. “There is an imperative need for educators to develop an intersectional awareness regarding Black girls’ nuanced identities and the structural forces that shape their daily lives,’’ Harris wrote.
The Concrete Rose girls had been assigned detentions, suspensions and expulsions. Four were involved in the court system as a result of school discipline, sometimes due to “zero tolerance” policies, including one 15-year old Black girl who brought pepper spray to school because she felt unsafe due to sex-trafficking in the community and didn’t realize it was against the rules. The group spoke candidly with Harris about their feelings, aspirations and the obstacles they faced.
Many were motivated students with good grades and dreams of college and successful careers. Five of the girls were honors students and deeply involved in campus organizations. Some were struggling to cope with the strain of having an incarcerated family member while others were navigating foster care, a system that forced them to frequently switch schools and in some cases assume the responsibility of looking out for younger siblings.
Harris tells the story of Teiera, a 17-year-old cheerleader and straight A student who longed to be the first family member to attend college and become a pediatrician. After being separated from her mother and placed in three different foster care homes and switching schools five times, her grades began to suffer and she sank into depression.
For the project, she wrote a note to her teachers, declaring, “I want you to know that I’m more than just a Ghetto Black Girl. I am independent, intelligent and trustworthy. I can sometimes get distracted…but I am driven. In my classes, I want to feel equal and included.’’
Another girl, Reigan, explained why she thought Black girls were punished at higher rates than others. “No one really takes the time to understand us. Nobody…understands why we’re mad or angry. Instead, they assume we’re just being bitter.’’
Harsh disciplinary measures can deprive Black girls of quality learning time, but even those who aren’t subjected to punishment suffer consequences. “When you are constantly being told the way you are engaging is problematic, you silence yourself and avoid the vitality that comes with that,” said Harris. She knows this from personal experience.
As a teen in honors courses where her peers and teachers were mostly white, Harris tried not to draw attention to herself. “I presented in a way that was very passive and quiet. I was deemed a ‘good Black girl’ and this granted me access to opportunities and support that many of my friends, who were Black girls enrolled in regular track courses or were considered ‘ghetto’ Black girls,’ did not receive,’’ she says.
Many educators need a better awareness of Black feminine cultural norms, says Harris. “Among the girls in the Concrete Rose Project, loudness was often embraced as a strength in their communities because it equipped them with the capital to survive in a racist and sexist society. Challenging an educator who disrespected them, for example, would be viewed as an asset and strength. Educators need to fully understand who Black girls are from a socio-cultural and developmental perspective,’’ she explains.
Most importantly, Black girls deserve spaces to be heard and educators who are committed to listening and respecting them. “They are entitled to have their hard-won knowledge nurtured,’’ Harris wrote. “They are entitled to be embraced and celebrated.’’