Black Girls Matter

By Cooper, Kenneth J. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 26, 2015 | Go to article overview

Black Girls Matter


Cooper, Kenneth J., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Three times this year, Zainab Abdelmula has been suspended from the alternative public high school she attends in New York City. The one-week suspensions came last October, November and December for incidents the 16-year-old junior from Brooklyn described as not involving violent or even disruptive behavior.

This initial suspension came during afterschool detention, for showing a friend a strange photo of Zainab's pet rabbit licking a bottle of nonalcoholic champagne. School officials accused her of promoting underage drinking.

The second time Zainab skipped a day without calling the school. The last suspension was for breaking an electric pencil sharpener while sharpening an eraser. She maintained the damage to school property was an accident.

"Before I got suspended, I did a lot better in school. Anytime I'm suspended, I can't do my work," says Zainab, who says she feels misunderstood. "I end up getting zeros that whole week, which puts me really down."

Concern about racial-ethnic disparities in school discipline has long focused on Black boys, who are suspended more often than any other group of students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But in the last year, more attention has turned to the disparities affecting Zainab and other Black girls, who are the third-most suspended group, after Native American boys.

"I'm excited to see there's a lot of momentum building around exploring what is happening to Black girls. Historically in this work, Black girls have been the group who have not been covered," says Thena Robinson-Mock, project director of the Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Campaign at the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization.

The disparities facing girls of color were spotlighted in a report last year from the Office for Civil Rights at the Education Department. In the 2011-12 academic year, 12 percent of Black girls received out-of-school suspensions, a higher rate than any other group of girls. At 7 percent, Native Americans had the second-highest rate among girls. Twenty percent of Black boys were suspended.

"When girls are suspended and excluded from the classroom, that does increase the chance that they will drop out," Robinson- Mock says. "Students tend to disengage from their education at that point. The most severe consequence is that the young person will end up in the juvenile justice system, and that is how the pipeline [to prison] happens."

Disproportionate numbers

The Education Department's report found that Black students are also disproportionately referred to law enforcement and arrested in connection with school violations. A spokesman says the department has yet to break down those juvenile justice statistics by race and gender in order to determine the national rate for Black girls.

Dropping out of high school, of course, means any student is less likely to attend or complete college.

Zainab is unsure whether she wants to go to college but does want to graduate from her high school, which she declined to identify by name. Her account of her suspensions could not be verified because student discipline records are confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

She is a member of Girls for Gender Equity, an advocacy group in Brooklyn.

The suspensions, or at least Zainab's explanations of them, appear to run counter to guidance that Catherine E. Lhamon, the education department's assistant secretary for civil rights, gave local school officials in a "Dear Colleague" letter in January 2014.

Lhamon counseled schools to adopt a discipline policy that "explicitly limits the use of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and alternative placements to the most severe disciplinary infractions that threaten school safety or to those circumstances where mandated by Federal or State law."

The department spokesman provided national statistics showing the suspension rate for Black girls has risen from 9 percent in 1994, the first year the data was available, to 12 percent in academic year 2011-12. …

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