The Gendered School to Prison Pipeline // Cecile A. Gadson, M.A.
Growing up as a Black girl in a predominately White school district, I noticed subtle differences in my experiences compared to most of my peers but since I was one of the few students of color in most of my classes in primary school, I was often not able to validate my experiences with girls who looked like me. Although, not apparent when I was a little girl, I am to starting to see a clearer yet disturbing picture of Black girl’s academic experiences through news stories ranging from school policies banning ethic hair styles (e.g. Afro puffs) for little girls to Black girls facing disciplinary action at higher rates than other students. These stories have received greater attention in the media but in many cases, the well-being, experiences, and issues concerning Black girls are often invisible due to the focus on either race or gender for girls of color. The unique experiences of Black girls include a potential gendered school to prison pipeline including harsh punishment for minor offenses in school leading to harsh criminal punishment in the judicial system.
According to a recent report from the African American Policy Forum (AAFP), Black girls are being disciplined at higher rates than their peers. In the AAFP report, Black girls were six times more likely to be disciplined than White girls when Black boys were only three times more likely than White boys to be disciplined. Previous reports suggest that when children face academic punishment such as suspension and detention, they return less engaged with their teachers and peers in the classroom. This disengagement could lead to decreased academic motivation and further behaviors that could lead to more disciplinary action.
Disparities in behavioral punishment in school towards Black girls could be linked to disengagement in school, which could then push them to engage in minor crimes and ultimately, the juvenile justice system. A recent study by the Human Rights Project for Girls by Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, reported that young girls are showing an increased presence in the juvenile justice system due to a sexual assault to prison pipeline. The report suggested that this pipeline is created because these young girls are being punitively punished for “non-serious” crimes in reaction to their elevated sexual trauma history. In this report, Black girls and other girls of color are overrepresented in the sexual assault to prison pipeline. Although this report highlights that Black girls are being impacted at higher rates than White girls in this pipeline, the report does not go into details about factors contributing to this gap. Perhaps Black girls being over punished in schools is leading some to the sexual assault to prison pipeline. The disparities in both the school and juvenile justice system suggest that Black girls are having unique experiences that are being shaped by the intersection of their race AND gender. Within the Human Rights Project for Girls report, Black girls’ experiences are only briefly mentioned and are not explored from an intersectional framework. As suggested by the lead author of the AAFP report, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, this lack of recognition and further exploration of this crisis is leaving our Black girls neglected, invisible, over disciplined, and not supported.
One of the greatest impacts of girls in the sexual assault to prison pipelines is psychological distress. In the Human Rights for Girls report, 80% of girls in the juvenile justice system met conditions for a mental health diagnosis. Most of these mental health concerns for girls in the justice system are connected to past trauma. In addition, mental health intervention programs that addressed treating their trauma significantly lowered the likelihood of these girls reoffending. Within the school system, Black girls are facing academic stereotypes, higher expectations, and higher incidences of their behavior being criminalized. These experiences in school could also impact the mental health and well-being of Black girls. The struggle of girls of color are being silenced by not addressing and recognizing that Black girls face both racial and gendered discrimination.
In recognition of this crisis of young Black girls, it is important to use this information to provide targeted community and school interventions. These interventions should be grounded in the goals of understanding the challenges of Black girls and making them feel safe, supported, and included. This crisis is a call for feminist psychologists to support research, advocacy, and interventions designed to attend to the well-being of our Black girls. The unique experiences of Black girls are becoming more apparent and now more than ever, we cannot continue to ignore this crisis.