When I was in the sixth grade, I got into a fight at school. It wasn't the first time I'd been in a fight, but it was the first time one happened at school. It was with a boy who was about a foot taller than me, who was physically stronger than me and who'd been taunting me for weeks. One day in PE, he stepped on my shoe and refused to apologize. So, filled with anger, I grabbed him and I threw him to the ground. I'd had some previous judo training.
Our fight lasted less than two minutes, but it was a perfect reflection of the hurricane that was building inside of me as a young survivor of sexual assault and as a girl who was grappling with abandonment and exposure to violence in other spaces in my life. I was fighting him, but I was also fighting the men and boys that had assaulted my body and the culture that told me I had to be silent about it. A teacher broke up the fight and my principal called me in her office. But she didn't say, "Monique, what's wrong with you?" She gave me a moment to collect my breath and asked, "What happened?"
The educators working with me led with empathy. They knew me. They knew I loved to read, they knew I loved to draw, they knew I adored Prince. And they used that information to help me understand why my actions, and those of my classmate, were disruptive to the learning community they were leading. They didn't place me on suspension; they didn't call the police. My fight didn't keep me from going to school the next day. It didn't keep me from graduating; it didn't keep me from teaching.
But unfortunately, that's not a story that's shared by many black girls in the US and around the world today. We're living through a crisis in which black girls are being disproportionately pushed away from schools—not because of an imminent threat they pose to the safety of a school, but because they're often experiencing schools as locations for punishment and marginalization. That's something that I hear from black girls around the country. But it's not insurmountable. We can shift this narrative.
Let's start with some data. According to a National Black Women's Justice Institute analysis of civil rights data collected by the US Department of Education, black girls are the only group of girls who are overrepresented along the entire continuum of discipline in schools. That doesn't mean that other girls aren't experiencing exclusionary discipline and it doesn't mean that other girls aren't overrepresented at other parts along that continuum. But black girls are the only group of girls who are overrepresented all along the way. Black girls are seven times more likely than their white counterparts to experience one or more out-of-school suspensions and they're nearly three times more likely than their white and Latinx counterparts to be referred to the juvenile court.
A recent study by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality partially explained why this disparity is taking place when they confirmed that black girls experience a specific type of age compression, where they're seen as more adult-like than their white peers. Among other things, the study found that people perceive black girls to need less nurturing, less protection, to know more about sex and to be more independent than their white peers. The study also found that the perception disparity begins when girls are as young as five years old. And that this perception and the disparity increases over time and peaks when girls are between the ages of 10 and 14. This is not without consequence. Believing that a girl is older than she is can lead to harsher treatment, immediate censure when she makes a mistake and victim blaming when she's harmed. It can also lead a girl to think that something is wrong with her, rather than the conditions in which she finds herself.
Black girls are routinely seen as too loud, too aggressive, too angry, too visible. Qualities that are often measured in relation to nonblack girls and which don't take into consideration what's going on in this girl's life or her cultural norms. And it's not just in the US. In South Africa, black girls at the Pretoria Girls High School were discouraged from attending school with their hair in its natural state, without chemical processing. What did those girls do? They protested. And it was a beautiful thing to see the global community for the most part wrap its arms around girls as they stood in their truths. But there were those who saw them as disruptive, largely because they dared to ask the question, "Where can we be black if we can't be black in Africa?"
It's a good question. Around the world, black girls are grappling with this question. And around the world, black girls are struggling to be seen, working to be free and fighting to be included in the landscape of promise that a safe space to learn provides. In the US, little girls, just past their toddler years, are being arrested in classrooms for having a tantrum. Middle school girls are being turned away from school because of the way they wear their hair naturally or because of the way the clothes fit their bodies. High school girls are experiencing violence at the hands of police officers in schools. Where can black girls be black without reprimand or punishment? And it's not just these incidents.
In my work as a researcher and educator, I've had an opportunity to work with girls like Stacy, a girl who I profile in my book "Pushout," who struggles with her participation in violence. She bypasses the neuroscientific and structural analyses that science has to offer about how her adverse childhood experiences inform why she's participating in violence and goes straight to describing herself as a "problem child," largely because that's the language that educators were using as they routinely suspended her.
But here's the thing. Disconnection and the internalization of harm grow stronger in isolation. So when girls get in trouble, we shouldn't be pushing them away, we should be bringing them in closer. Education is a critical protective factor against contact with the criminal legal system. So we should be building out policies and practices that keep girls connected to their learning, rather than pushing them away from it. It's one of the reasons I like to say that education is freedom work. When girls feel safe, they can learn. When they don't feel safe, they fight, they protest, they argue, they flee, they freeze. The human brain is wired to protect us when we feel a threat. And so long as school feels like a threat, or part of the tapestry of harm in a girl's life, she'll be inclined to resist. But when schools become locations for healing, they can also become locations for learning.
So what does this mean for a school to become a location for healing? Well, for one thing, it means that we have to immediately discontinue the policies and practices that target black girls for their hairstyles or dress.
Let's focus on how and what a girl learns rather than policing her body in ways that facilitate rape culture or punish children for the conditions in which they were born. This is where parents and the community of concerned adults can enter this work. Start a conversation with the school and encourage them to address their dress code and other conduct-related policies as a collaborative project, with parents and students, so as to intentionally avoid bias and discrimination. Keep in mind, though, that some of the practices that harm black girls most are unwritten. So we have to continue to do the deep, internal work to address the biases that inform how, when and whether we see black girls for who they actually are, or what we've been told they are. Volunteer at a school and establish culturally competent and gender responsive discussion groups with black girls, Latinas, indigenous girls and other students who experience marginalization in schools to give them a safe space to process their identities and experiences in schools. And if schools are to become locations for healing, we have to remove police officers and increase the number of counselors in schools.
Education is freedom work. And whatever our point of entry is, we all have to be freedom fighters. The good news is that there are schools that are actively working to establish themselves as locations for girls to see themselves as sacred and loved. The Columbus City Prep School for Girls in Columbus, Ohio, is an example of this. They became an example the moment their principal declared that they were no longer going to punish girls for having "a bad attitude." In addition to building—Essentially, what they did is they built out a robust continuum of alternatives to suspension, expulsion and arrest. In addition to establishing a restorative justice program, they improved their student and teacher relationships by ensuring that every girl has at least one adult on campus that she can go to when she's in a moment of crisis. They built out spaces along the corridors of the school and in classrooms for girls to regroup, if they need a minute to do so. And they established an advisory program that provides girls with an opportunity to start every single day with the promotion of self-worth, communication skills and goal setting. At this school, they're trying to respond to a girl's adverse childhood experiences rather than ignore them. They bring them in closer; they don't push them away. And as a result, their truancy and suspension rates have improved, and girls are arriving at school increasingly ready to learn because they know the teachers there care about them. That matters.
Schools that integrate the arts and sports into their curriculum or that are building out tranformative programming, such as restorative justice, mindfulness and meditation, are providing an opportunity for girls to repair their relationships with others, but also with themselves. Responding to the lived, complex and historical trauma that our students face requires all of us who believe in the promise of children and adolescents to build relationships, learning materials, human and financial resources and other tools that provide children with an opportunity to heal, so that they can learn.
Our schools should be places where we respond to our most vulnerable girls as essential to the creation of a positive school culture. Our ability to see her promise should be at its sharpest when she's in the throws of poverty and addiction; when she's reeling from having been sex-trafficked or survived other forms of violence; when she's at her loudest, or her quietest. We should be able to support her intellectual and social-emotional well-being whether her shorts reach her knees or stop mid-thigh or higher. It might seem like a tall order in a world so deeply entrenched in the politics of fear to radically imagine schools as locations where girls can heal and thrive, but we have to be bold enough to set this as our intention. If we commit to this notion of education as freedom work, we can shift educational conditions so that no girl, even the most vulnerable among us, will get pushed out of school. And that's a win for all of us.