Hands on Their Backs

Dr. Monique Morris made me nervous. She shouldn’t have.

Monique Morris addresses Wake Forest Univeristy on February 21, 2017. Photo: Ann Thuy Nguyen

She has soft-looking chestnut skin and gorgeous locs. On the day we met, she wore a set of bracelets whimsically stacked on her arm that chimed when she entered the radio station. Later that day, I would watch her sing, smile, and reference west-coast hip-hop as she gave a presentation on school discipline, black girls, and the juvenile justice system — her areas of expertise.

Dr. Morris is beautiful and charming and kind. She’s an advocate and scholar who goes as hard for black girls as I should have when I had the chance. So, when she sits in front of me, ready for me to interview her, I don’t just see her. I see twenty little brown faces — and I feel regret.

For the 2014–2015 school year, I was a “City Year” — an Americorps volunteer at an elementary school in Washington DC. The school feeds into a high school from which 43% of its students don’t graduate. I was charged with tutoring and mentoring twenty little black girls that looked like me, but expressed curiosity, independence, and discontent very differently. After my year of service, I had heard Dr. Morris speak on the way black girl emotions are misread and demonized. When she stands before me at the station, I’m reminded of the times I let curiosity and independence feel like insubordination; times I let discontent felt like combat.

That’s how we’re socialized to see certain expressions of black femininity, especially in the white, middle-class suburb I’m from. However, the consequences of this socialization reach far beyond the suburbs. White middle-class-ness exerts a cultural hegemony over the United States. From it stems the manners and behavior that are deemed acceptable within our society — not necessarily because they are better, but because they are characteristic of the dominant sect. Whiteness mandates that a respectable volume is low, that respectable conflict resolution strategy is passive-aggressive.

When schools turn black girls away, when they criminalize them in this way, they are then primed to be captured by a criminal justice system hell-bent on locking them up.

I had a student — let’s call her Angela — whose joy was boisterous and demeanor confrontational. Several of her educators let her infuriate us — we were the ones who came from a world away. “But I’m not doing anything wrong!” she’d proclaim when we’d tell her where to stand, how to speak, and when to move. She sometimes listened but more often did what she wanted, all the while producing some of the best work in the class. She was a leader, respected by her classmates and sure of herself. I was molded to see black girls who stand up for themselves with certainty and sharpness like Angela as “sassy.” I was raised to see their questioning of authority as defiance.

And when educators and law-enforcement see black girls as defiant, they’re likely to respond with eye rolls, impatience, and harsh words. They kick them out of class, like we did Angela, leaving her wandering the halls, sometimes stomping, sometimes crying. They suspend, and even expel girls like her. A black girl may get pulled out of her chair and slammed to the ground by a school-resource officer. And when schools turn black girls away, when they criminalize them in this way, they are then primed to be captured by a criminal justice system hell-bent on locking them up. The grip this system has on black girls is hard to loosen.

I think about all of this as I direct Dr. Morris to a high chair in front of a microphone. I ask her to talk about what she ate for breakfast to test the sound levels. My nerves keep me from making small talk with her like I should. We begin the interview and when I slip a question I already know that answer to into the mic, her response is marked by a subtle indignation.

“Why do you focus your work on black girls?” I ask. “Why aren’t you and I talking about the school-to-prison pipeline in the context of girls and boys of all races right now?”

She smiles.

“By virtue of what we see in the data.”

The data say that black girls are five times more likely to be suspended than white girls. That they’re the fastest growing population of students experiencing exclusionary discipline. The Department of Education reported that across the spectrum of disciplinary experiences, from in-school suspension to arrest, black girls are the only girls to be grossly overrepresented. In 2012, they made up 16 percent of girl students, but 42 percent of expulsions.

Dr. Morris goes on.

“Aside from that, I just think it’s important to focus in on black girls.”

If you talked to Dr. Morris, she’d carefully and quickly tell you that what is happening to black girls is “pushout”: a phenomenon in which, at striking rates, black girls are the subject of exclusionary punishment for being the only selves they know how to be. She would remind you that there are so many ways black girls can be put on the path to disciplinary confinement that the language of “school-to-prison pipeline” is minimizing. With a smooth voice and a locked stare, she will lay out the policies and practices that tell young black girls that they belong in the jailhouse, not the schoolhouse.

There are school codes of conduct that enforce infractions that end up overly punishing black girls, like “annoying conduct” — an actual offense in Arkansas schools (as if all children, all people, are not, at some point, annoying).

There are dress codes that tell children, especially black girls, that their attire is too revealing, too tempting — as if a child could be sexy. Schools punish black girls for this sex appeal they placed upon them, sending them home if they come to school in short-shorts on a hot day.

Students can also be sent home for having hair that isn’t “neat,” as if black hair always grows neatly out of black scalps.

“Pushout”: a phenomenon in which, at striking rates, black girls are the subject of exclusionary punishment for being the only selves they know how to be.

Even without major disciplinary action taken against them, students can feel like their school communities would just rather not have them there. Despite a teacher’s best intention, they may constantly single a student out — or ignore them completely. An administrator may tell a black trans girl that her transition is a distraction. And, nonsensically, girls who respond to this treatment with truancy can be arrested or sentenced to detention in a juvenile facility — kept out of school as a punishment for keeping out of school.

Of course, pushout can also come at the heels of truly disruptive offenses, like fighting — although fighting may be the dominant form of conflict management in a student’s home. If a student runs away from an abusive home, they can be locked up too.

Morris signs copies of her book “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools”. Photo: Ann Thuy Nguyen

Schools miss the opportunity to treat the trauma that lives in many black girls, according to Dr. Morris, because they are too busy deeming it dissent, too accustomed to a false sense of law and order that relies on punishment.

If I could be a City Year again, I would recognize that some, if not most, of the twenty little black girls I taught were hurting. I wouldn’t forget that statistics say 12 of them were survivors of sexual abuse. That 11 of them had at least one incarcerated parent. That eight of them were in foster care. I wouldn’t forget the social ills that were manifesting in my classroom.

Prisons are filled with girls like my students. Two-thirds of incarcerated women in jail are of color. Eighty-six percent of women in jail were sexually abused at some point before they got there. Women in prisons are “overwhelmingly poor.” The way prisons perpetuate pain is one of the reasons radical thinkers like Angela Davis propose we abandon the institution all together. These prison abolitionists imagine a world where real harm is met with love. A world without prisons necessitates a reorientation around what constitutes harm in the first place and where harm originates. It requires a rethinking of law enforcement that criminalizes poverty and trauma.

While prisons are still in existence, schools can help keep students out of them by responding to negative student behavior with abolitionist interventions. Schools can adopt restorative justice practices, focused on repairing or building relationships between conflicting parties — students and students, or students and educators. Restorative justice can look like dialogue, but it can also look like doing what it takes to heal both the instigator and the victim. It can look like them doing those healing exercises together.

If I could do it again, would have seen myself as a healer. I would dance with my students when their energy seemed uncontainable. I would write with them when something was weighing on them. We’d do yoga. I would have longer conversations with them; I would have a longer temper. More often, I’d let them lead and question and thrive.

A mother listens to Morris intently as her child sleeps. Photo: Ann Thuy Nguyen

Schools can act preventatively, too, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Schools can create a culture that reinforces positive behavior. They can spend less money on school-resource officers and more on counselors. They can train teachers to confront their biases.

The National Women’s Law Center says data — the same kinds of data Dr. Morris’s work relies on — is crucial. But not all schools keep or publish records of how students are being disciplined, let alone how many and who. Not all schools disaggregate that data by race, gender, disability, English learner status, and the intersections of those identities.

I fear that data will only become harder to come by under the Trump administration. Juvenile justice advocates had to fight for it from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights even under President Obama. Now, we have a Secretary of Education that refuses to stand up to the president as he rolls back civil rights protections. Under Betsy DeVos’s leadership, access to data is Dr. Morris’s gravest concern.She doesn’t necessarily need the Department of Education to be an outspoken ally in her quest to end school pushout: She just needs their data. She has allies elsewhere.

“I have yet to meet an educator who doesn’t care about the school pushout phenomenon,” she said, bracelets chiming. “I’ve yet to meet an educator who doesn’t believe that there is something else that should be happening.”

This is a revised and expanded version of a piece originally published on The FBomb.