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Pushout: Making the case to stop criminalizing black girls

Monique Morris, co-writer and executive producer of the documentary “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” was in Atlanta for a screening of the film Nov. 14 at Clark Atlanta University. CONTRIBUTED
Monique Morris, co-writer and executive producer of the documentary “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” was in Atlanta for a screening of the film Nov. 14 at Clark Atlanta University. CONTRIBUTED

I was reminded recently of a study by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality reaffirming that being a black girl isn’t easy.

The study, titled “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” found that compared with young white girls, people think young black girls need less nurturing, protection, support and comfort. They’re seen as more independent, and participants think they know more about mature topics, such as sex.

Researchers called it “adultification,” the notion that girls of color, especially those 5-14, are less childlike and, as a result, more likely to be assigned greater culpability for their actions.

I first wrote about the results in 2017, but Monique Morris, the founder and president of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, an organization that works to reduce racial and gender disparities affecting black women, girls and their families, has been making that argument at least since 1995.

She was a graduate student that year at Columbia University, where she was starting to explore residential juvenile detention facilities and their impact on community development.

“I went into a detention facility in the Bronx and started talking to girls, and at that point, I realized that while we were talking primarily about what was happening to boys, girls were also impacted,” Morris said.

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But even then, it never occurred to her, she told me, that what she was seeing would become a pattern — growing numbers of girls incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

“Scholars had started to ask why the numbers were growing, but there wasn’t a lot of rigor around advocacy and what might be leading them there,” Morris said.

Morris, now a 47-year-old mother of two daughters, was in her early 20s, not much older than the girls she was seeing in juvenile detention. It gave her an entree into their world.

Years later, during one of her visits to talk about the street novel “Too Beautiful for Words,” an 11-year-old raised her hand.

“I’m a ho, that’s what I do,” she said, describing herself.

It broke Morris’ heart. It still does.

That set Morris on this journey, looking at how people’s different identities and experiences make them more vulnerable to being criminalized.

In 2010, after earning both a bachelor’s and master’s from Columbia, Morris was working at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, where there was a lot of talk about what was happening to black boys but there was hardly any mention of black girls.

“Based on what I had seen, I found that problematic,” Morris said. “Especially when we were finally able to see the disaggregated data by race and gender, which showed that black girls were experiencing an over-representation in school discipline just like their male counterparts.”

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In fact, scholars would later show that the disparity was even greater among girls than what was happening to boys.

Morris knew then that something had to be done.

“I wanted to challenge the idea that black girls were disposable,” she said.

Which gets us to “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” an award-winning documentary based in part on Morris’ doctoral research at Fielding Graduate University and her book of the same name, which lays bare the policies and practices that lead to unhealthy learning environments, and unsafe and uncertain futures for so many young women.

In both, Morris shows how the school-to-prison pipeline framework has limited our ability to see the specific ways black girls are affected by surveillance, provides alternatives to punishment and offers ways, free of stigma and judgment, to help support and nurture black girls.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Prior to a screening at Clark Atlanta University last week, Morris talked to me about what set her on this journey.

Black girls represent 16% of female students but almost half of all girls with school-related arrests. Black girls are suspended at six times the rate of white girls, while black boys are suspended at three times the rate of white boys. Queer and gender-nonconforming youths are significantly over-represented in the juvenile justice system; and more than 60% of the 300,000 gay and transgender youths arrested and detained each year are black and Latino.

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To her credit, Morris takes us far past these numbers and gives us a glimpse of the flesh-and-blood human beings disproportionately punished for subjective interpretations of behavior that increased their likelihood of being in contact with law enforcement and the juvenile court system. Things as simple as asking questions, laughing, wearing clothing technically in violation of school dress codes had a different enforcement.

“I talk to the girls and let their stories drive this,” Morris said.

We meet Shakara, the South Carolina high schooler who in 2015 was thrown from her desk and dragged across her classroom floor by a sheriff ’s deputy; Michelle Mitchell, who when she was just 7, was arrested with her 8-year-old brother after they got into a fight on an Ohio school bus; and Samia, who was 7 when a teacher grabbed her chair and dragged her out of class for not returning a male student’s coin when asked.

The goal now is to raise awareness and educate the rest of us about the “hyper-punitive nature” of discipline in our nation’s schools and, she said, expose them to a different set of practices, principally that love is what facilitates learning.

“I want to unequivocally affirm that black girls are worthy of inquiry and support,” Morris said.

In her mind, and it’s hard to argue the point, this comes down to who we think is worthy of our attention.

“Almost everywhere I go, young people tell me school feels like a prison,” Morris said. “They say they want a sanctuary and to me it’s not super-complicated. It’s about providing the best possible space to feel safe enough to learn.

“That means better preparing teachers, setting policy that encourages alternatives to punitive discipline, relationship building, and resetting our public discourse about black children in general and black girls in particular,” Morris said. “Ultimately, it’s about fostering conditions for healing in schools so that children can feel safe enough to learn.”

Schools that support social emotional development, for instance, experience better academic outcomes. Truancy goes down. Bullying goes down. Acts of insubordination go down. Test scores go up.

“The measure of our wellness is how well our children are doing,” Morris said. “Listen to them and they will tell you how well they are doing.”

The time has come to hear them and respond.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.