By: Jamelia N. Harris, Ph.D.
In 2007, video footage of a Black girl being slammed against a lunch table and violently arrested by an officer at my high school circulated across the media. Witnessing this incident, just weeks before my first day as a freshman student, permanently disrupted my sense of safety in school and eventually influenced me to pursue a Ph.D. at UCLA, where I research the criminalization of Black girls. Despite cultural assumptions that girls should be treated with gentility, Black girls learn early on that our Blackness disqualifies us from the protections of girlhood and childhood innocence, especially when interacting with police. Amidst quarantine and school closures, Black girls across the nation are forced to grapple with the realities of a dual national pandemic, both of which disproportionately take the lives of Black people: COVID-19 and police murder. While these students attempt to remain socially connected and preserve their school relationships through social media outlets, they are simultaneously confronted by the innumerable assaults waged against Black bodies documented via #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName. As students across the nation mobilize for police-free schools in response to the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, it is important to consider why many of these movements have been led by Black girls. A mounting body of research suggests that school discipline policies and practices are enacted in ways that disenfranchise Black girls. Data from theNational Black Women’s Justice Institute show that Black girls are seven times more likely to be suspended from school and are four times more likely to be arrested on school campus than their white peers. Research consistently finds these disparities are not reflective of higher rates of misbehavior among Black girls — rather, scholars attribute these inequities to adultification biases. The process of adultification dehumanizes Black girls, denying them the protections extended to white girls and subjecting them to severe penalties, including excessive force by police.
Our increased likelihood of being assaulted (or worse), at the hands of state officials can, in part, account for the collective commitment to redressing this injustice that the country is bearing witnessing to. In recent years, videos have shown Black girls as young as six years old being placed in handcuffs and physically thrown across classrooms by school police. Even in the height of a deadly pandemic, a 15-year-old Black girl who was incarcerated for struggling with distance learning has remained imprisoned for nearly two months. While these incidents garnered media attention, it is imperative to emphasize that their experiences fit within a noticeable pattern. These recurring patterns further explain why many Black students and Black girls in particular do not feel safe around police officers. In a recent large scale survey of Black students in Los Angeles over 45% of Black students disagreed or strongly disagreed that police made them feel safer in school. The over-reliance on police coupled with the pervasiveness of culturally-insensitive school officials subject Black girls to violence, criminalization and trauma in the educational landscape. While conducting research, I heard countless stories about the violence police commit against Black students along with the emotional harm and trauma Black girls endure as a consequence of witnessing and surviving these encounters. At a California high school, over twelve Black girls gathered to discuss their perceptions of school police. Over the course of the conversation, students described multiple instances where police officers responded to classroom level behavioral infractions and violently arrested students for fighting. Marie, an 11th grade Black girl, described one particularly traumatic incident where police subdued a crowd of mostly Black students with rubber bullets and pepper spray to “disperse” a fight: “They sprayed innocent kids … I just been seeing a lot of stuff. People being slammed and it makes me kind of sad because then I'll be having flashbacks in my head about stuff that's happening outside of the world … police killing pregnant Black women and stuff like that.” The notion that this encounter triggered flashbacks of “police killing pregnant Black women,” reflected the experiences of multiple students who similarly described the impact of witnessing this incident or other encounters with police in school. These students often described emotional and bodily reactions, along with other symptoms consistent with race-based traumatic stress. Research demonstrates the ways police visibility in schools impact the mental health of Black students. One study, conducted by a professor at Harvard, found that Black high school students’ exposure to localized police violence and the shooting of unarmed people leads to persistent decreases in grade point average, increased incidence of emotional disturbance, and lower rates of high school completion and college enrollment. Yet, at a time when Black girls are being inundated with recurring narratives of anti-black state violence and the systemic devalument of Black life, many schools continue to invest more dollars into police than providing sufficient counseling resources. Given evidence documenting the increased rates of suicide attempts and mental health issues among Black teengagers there is a critical need for school boards to divest funds from school police and increase funds for school nurses and mental health providers. The recent abolition of police in districts like Oakland Unified, along with the vote by Los Angeles Unified School District to reduce the school police budget by $25 million and redirect funds toward resources and counseling services in majority Black schools, empower us to reimagine the future of education for Black children. However, these efforts must continue to be expanded across the nation’s public schools if we are to materialize a true and adequate commitment to supporting Black girls in schools. As school districts begin to implement plans for reopening, it is imperative to rectify the unjust policies and practices that reproduce schools as racially hostile and unsafe places for Black girls. If educators and school leaders truly commit to the moral declaration Black Lives Matter, then this commitment must be reflected in the ways Black children are treated and educated. This entails an investment in resources that address the intersectional needs of Black girls, including race and gender responsive programming, policies and practices.