Conversations to Change the Narrative: Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools Q&A w/ Dr. Adrienne Lawson

Click the link for the Q&A introduction of the topic!

The decriminalization of Black girls in schools looks like, restorative justice practices, creating diversion courts, remaking the educational and juvenile justice system and of course advocacy. To change the narrative from the criminalization to the decriminalization, we need to be in these spaces. I am in k-12 education and I am a witness to this issue. I learned that, not only am I a safe space for these young girls but I need to educate my peers in these spaces. Another way to change the narrative is to advocate and open up dialogue like this one. Dr. Adrienne Lawson provides some info, stats and some ways she thinks the gap will be close to protect our Black girls. Check out our Q&A below.

Q: What is your name and profession?

A: Dr. Adrienne Lawson, I serve as the Senior Director for Health Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at UC Davis Medical Center. My doctorate is in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. My expertise enters around health equity, diversity and inclusion for those most vulnerable and underrepresented in the community.

Q:What is your relationship to the issue of criminalization on Black girls in schools?

A: I have witnessed black girls in schools be victims of racism by teachers, their peers and police officers on campus. I have been contacted by several parents to help advocate on behalf of their daughters in schools that have been treated their child like a criminal. In addition, over the years black girls have talked to me about the many microagressions they receive in a day at school by teachers. There was even an article in the Sacramento Observer about a high school where Black girlsexperienced harsh and harmful implicit and explicit racial biases on a daily and how their morale was damaged, and their reputation tarnished by negative comments from teachers.

Ebony, let me share some startling data. Black girls are 16 percent of girls in schools, but 42 percent of girls receiving corporal punishment, 42 percent of girls expelled with or without educational services, 45 percent of girls with at least one out-of-school suspension, 31 percent of girls referred to law enforcement, and 34 percent of girls arrested on campus. Now you may ask, what did these girls do? When often, it’s not about what they did, but rather, the culture of discipline and punishment that leaves little room for error when one is black and female.

Black girls are being labeled and suspended for being “disruptive” or “defiant” if they ask questions or otherwise engage in activities that adults consider challenges their authority. It has been reported across the country, black girls being placed in handcuffs for having tantrums in kindergarten classrooms, thrown out of class for asking questions, sent home from school for arriving in shorts on a hot day, labeled as “truant”, and labeled as “defiant” if they speak up in the face of what they [identify] to be injustice. We also see black girls criminalized (arrested on campus or referred to law enforcement) instead of engaged as children and teens whose mistakes could be addressed through non-punitive restorative approaches.

These types of unwarranted behaviors has lead me to research what safe guards, laws, and policies are in place to protect these girls. My research lead me to the National Black Women’s Justice Institute (NBWJI), which has been at the forefront of fighting nationally to end the criminalization of Black girls in schools and to create safe and healing-informed spaces.

Q:Where do you think this problem stemmed from?

A: The short answer is implicit racial and gender biases. Monique W. Morris has coined the “good girl” and “bad girl” dichotomy, her book called: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, a condition that has plagued black girls and women for time immemorial. I believe it’s important for us to understand that the negative socioeconomic conditions for black women and girls are related to how race, gender, class, sexual identity, ability, and other identities interact with each other to undermine equal access to opportunity. Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” which captures this idea. Black women and girls must often navigate through a landscape that reinforces multidimensional stereotypes and debilitating narratives that negatively impact how black femininity is understood. Dr. Crenshaw is a full-time professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, where she specializes in race and gender issues.

Q:Why do you think Black girls are targeted more?

A: Again, short answer – society’s expectations – norms that society set for people, influenced by racism and patriarchy. Henceforth, Black girls are often mischaracterized, and mislabeled because of how they look, dress, speak, and act. In short, black girls are devalued based on how others perceive them.

Q:What are some ways you think that the gap will be closed to make sure that Black girls are not being pushed out of school and into confinement.

A: The short answer is social advocacy. It’s important for parents, social and civil right leaders, ally’s, and caring teachers to unify, be an active bystander, stand against the criminalization of Black girls – this is a social injustice! We need tostand up for the decriminalization of Black girls. In addition, be informed of ourrights and policy on this issue of black girls being criminalized in schools. I’ve been following the advocacy of The National Black Women’s Justice Institute (NBWJI). This group is a leading research, training, and technical assistance provider to public agencies, institutions, and foundations on countering the criminalization of Black women and girls. NBWJI works to reduce racial and gender disparities across the justice continuum affecting Black women, girls, and their families, by promoting civic engagement and advocating for informed and effective policies. Ebony, I loved that you titled this blog the decriminalization of black girls, because that’s the positive, aspirational message and advocacy that is needed in our society today.

In 2019, NBWJI released a list of federal, state and local policy recommendations to help prevent the criminalization of Black girls. The recommendations are inclusive of other marginalized groups, such as Black LGBTQ+ youth, and they operate on the principle that if Black girls are centered in the conversation, it could lead to policy that decriminalizes all Black youth.

On the federal level, recommendations include policies that support pregnant and parenting students in school districts and post-secondary institutions. Instead of discouraging these students from discontinuing their education, NBWJI suggests programs to support their academic success; such as access to quality, affordable child care.

That’s all I have, Ebony. Thank you for this opportunity to share this important topic about how Black girls are being treated in schools. Continue doing great work at your school, advocating for the Black girls there, they need you and count on you to have their backs.

In solidarity,

Dr. Adrienne Lawson, your mom 

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