Equity: Listen to the Girls

School discipline falls hard on girls of color

“Listen to the girls” proclaims a poster in my home office. It was a gift from a former supervisor and it signals to me that it is important to appreciate the unique challenges faced by girls in this world. In the educational equity space, it means that we need to appreciate the unique challenges of female students— including girls of color.

NSBA’a mission states, among other things, that public education is a civil right. Our position on equity signals the importance of attending to the concerns of public school students, and eradicating and eliminating discriminatory prejudices, practices, and beliefs. Thus, our commitment is clear.

How can we give life to that commitment? Are we listening to the girls? When it comes to school discipline, it seems that we may not be. And this failure to listen—to pay attention— falls particularly hard on girls of color. Recent data regarding discipline tells us that students of color are disciplined at much higher rates than white students. We know generally that black boys are disciplined more than any other group and are more likely than white boys to be disciplined. We know generally that black girls are punished more than any other group of girls.

We also have learned that this lopsided application of discipline has meant that students of color are locked out of opportunities to learn because they are literally not in school. They miss valuable learning time, and even when they return to class, often don’t catch up. Indeed, the data tells us that for many students this disengagement means heightened vulnerability to juvenile incarceration—the school-to-prison pipeline. Thus, our efforts to achieve educational equity for all students—to erase the opportunity gap—are stymied, and the students we seek to lift up are left out.

Resolving this disparity is crucial. It is important to appreciate that well-meaning discipline policies can undermine overall educational goals for all public school students. While there is yet much to do, we have begun to address—or at least acknowledge—the disparate impacts of discipline based on race. What we have not attended to as much are the impacts of this disparity in discipline on girls of color—we have not listened to the implications of bias based on race/ethnicity and gender on how school discipline affects them. The data here is clear: U.S. Department of Education statistics from the 2013-14 school year show that:

  • Black girls are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls;
  • Black girls are more likely than any other race or gender to be suspended more than once;
  • American Indian/Alaska Native girls are three times more likely to be suspended than white girls, and at a higher rate than white boys; and
  • Latina girls are 1.6 times more likely to be suspended than white girls.

A 2015 report of the African American Policy Forum in partnership with Columbia University Law School showed that black girls in New York and Boston accounted for nearly 28 percent and 35 percent, respectively, of enrollment in those cities’ schools but faced a higher risk of expulsion because of racial bias and were suspended six times more often than white girls.

What can we do?

In the face of this disturbing data, what can we do? Clearly, we need to continue to collect data on the intersectional nature of the challenges faced by girls of color. When we focus on race and only look at boys, and when we focus on gender without focusing on race, we exclude girls of color. And we are not listening to them.

We also need to understand more about the potential bias behind this data.

If we listen to girls, we will know, for example, that schools that often punish black girls who act out more harshly may be doing so because of stereotypes about “angry” black girls. If we listen, we will know that often girls of color who challenge their teachers—with legitimate questions or who stand up for themselves —are punished for being disrespectful.

If we listen, we may learn that girls of color may be punished for fighting when they may be responding to and challenging sexual harassment and the threat of assault in or around the school building. A girl who is disciplined for fighting with her male classmate may be protecting herself when she sees she will not be protected by her teacher or other adults in the school. Both students are punished equally, when the girl may have been a target.

Girls who are “acting out” may be dealing with trauma at home, or other unmet needs.

If we listen, we may learn that girls of color who are disciplined for truancy or tardiness may have caretaking obligations at home that are unknown to or not fully understood by teachers
or administrators.

If we pay attention, we will see that even dress codes—which are often based on gender stereotypes—have been applied differently to girls of color. Accordingly, schools may target Latina students for not following dress codes because they are dressed “inappropriately” because of sexualized stereotypes regarding Latinas.

And recent stories in the press illustrate how even black girls’ hair styles have resulted in suspension because they don’t fit mainstream cultural norms. In 2017, for example, twins in Massachusetts were suspended because their braids violated the dress code. In Florida, a young woman was threatened with expulsion if she did not cut her Afro.

Thus, weaponizing dress codes as discipline may lock out girls of color.

We may need to know that even doing well in school may not be seen the same way for girls of color. So, a necessary focus on young males of color may mean that the achievements and concerns of girls of color are overlooked and undervalued. These girls may feel left out and thus vulnerable to negative behavior and unfair discipline.

Every state will have its own challenges regarding discipline as it seeks to provide an excellent public education to its students. However, the challenges faced by girls of color transcend geographic boundaries. We need to listen to the girls.


Claudia Withers (cwithers@nsba.org) is the managing director of NSBA’s Equity Programs.

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