In the United States, Black girls in high school are two times more likely to receive corporal punishment than white girls and three times more likely to be restrained. Statistics show that Black girls in grade school experience a disproportionate level of suspensions and expulsions compared to their white peers.
When it comes to the experience of Black girls, it is extremely common for them to deal with unfair discipline and bias in the U.S. education system. An evening at Mills College created a call to action to address this injustice.
On Feb. 8th, 2020, the School of Education held a screening of the 2019 documentary film “Pushout: the Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” co-hosted by the Black Student Collective. Dr. Monique Morris, executive producer and co-writer of the film, is an award-winning author, social justice scholar, filmmaker and artist.
Dr. Morris has decades of experience in education, civil rights, and juvenile and social justice. The film “Pushout” is based off of two of her books, “Sing A Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls” and “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.” Her work has reached the desks of lawmakers; in December 2019, she was represented by Congresswoman Alyanna Presley to introduce the Ending Punitive, Unfair, School-Based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma (PUSHOUT) Act.
“Dr. Morris’ work is making real change,” Dr. Wendy Williams, dean of the School of Education, said. “The Ending Punitive, Unfair School-Based harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma, Pushout ACT targets discriminatory and punitive school discipline policies that push Black and brown students out of schools at disproportionately high rates and often direct them to criminal justice systems. It also offers incentives to states and schools that commits to ban most suspensions and expulsions, as well as … corporal punishment and physical restraint of students.”
During Dr. Williams’ introduction of the event, she gave a history of the interconnectedness of indigenous people, enslaved Africans, and early settlers in the U.S and how it relates to school policies today. The racialization and bias towards indigenous people and enslaved Africans is a notion that has lasted through time and its history contributes to the experiences children have in classrooms.
“Black children are disproportionately the focus of zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools which push them out of school and into containment, whether in adult prison or juvenile justice systems, increasing the population [of those incarcerated] even as crime has decreased in this country,” Dr. Williams said. “And that is because it has never been about the crime. Indigenous youth who make up at least two-thirds of the youth in urban areas are relatively invisible. We don’t see them in and it may be by design, as invisibility can be protective on one hand and at the same time make your lives more dangerous. And this is noted if we think about the uncountable missing and murdered indigenous girls that we are not looking for in this culture.”
Dr. Williams emphasized that watching the film was not meant to be an “intellectual exercise” and encouraged the audience to actively think about ways they could take action before she welcomed Dr. Morris to the podium. She approached the stage as the audience rose in a standing ovation.
Dr. Morris explained how her work requires much travel as the conversations around the safety of Black girls should expand as far as possible, including creating more communities of solidarity. Individuals should understand that Black girls are the authors of their own stories, and they need the help of allies to tell these stories and become involved with discourse about how to make sure all girls of color feel safe in school settings.
“This labor of love is about broadening our community, not just our discourses, but our actions,” Dr. Morris said, “so that they align with what this call is: it’s to understand that Black girls are sacred and loved, that we have a responsibility to engage them as partners in the co-construction of safety in our schools, and to really center their experiences alongside other girls of color who are disproportionately harmed in places of learning.“
“Pushout” centers on the experiences of Black girls and highlighted instances of excessive punishment and behavioral bias from teachers. The film follows the stories of five girls: Ariana, Samaya, Emma, Kiara and Terriana, ranging from ages 12 – 19.
After the screening of the film, Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey hosted a panel discussion that included Dr. Patricia Nunley, an educational consultant, Dr. Wanda Wason, assistant professor and Multiple Subjects Program director, Dr. Natalee Kehaulani Bauer, professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies and ethnic studies, and Dr. Belinda Hernandez Arriaga, assistant professor at the University of San Francisco in the School of Education and clinical social worker.
Dr. Okazawa-Rey asked several questions to the panel and some to the audience regarding reactions to the film, the ability for people of color to be visible and invisible simultaneously, the feeling of knowing you are loved and supported, and “are [people of color] crash dummies?”
Dr. Nunley described her reactions to the opening scene of the film where a law enforcement officer can be seen flipping a young Black girl out of her school chair and throwing her to the ground. The incident was filmed by her classmates and is very similar to the many videos of police and security physical aggression towards Black and brown students that have come out since.
“I go to [an] African-American church and I remember when that incident occurred. And we talked about it at Bible study and I was so upset and disappointed in my fellow congregants,” she said. “Their opinion was ‘our children need to learn how to behave.’ And I reminded them that I’m an early childhood educator and it’s like, ‘no, no, you don’t get it’ There’s some developmental things. And it just really hurt my heart because most of the congregants were women and mothers and grandmothers.”
It is common for Black girls to be perceived as more adult-like and less innocent than their peers and are expected to behave as such, even from their own community. From a young age, Black girls are expected to be more mature.
Parents Tammy Rosa and Sarah Prada highlighted the Q&A session that took place after the panel. They reached out to the stage of educators and asked them what they could do to make a change to the current educational systems and institutions, specifically about the current climate at Burbank Elementary School in the Hayward School District.
Rosa explained that she is constantly shut out by the school district when she attempts to bring ideas to their attention and her complaints about the activity of “slavery games” at the school. According to Rosa and Prada, students would chase the Black students with jump ropes as if they were going to capture them.
Prada had to remove her children from the school district because their stories of mistreatment had gotten so terrible, but she emphasized how this was a privilege and that many children and parents continue to struggle.
“We don’t need allies—we need co-conspirators,” Prada said. “They’re tired of seeing us. They see the two of us walking in there, ‘Oh, here they come’. Because we’ve been screaming and shouting for so long.”
The two parents, who for seven years have been trying to work with the school district, have received numerous complaints from parents. They have been called and told a child was called the “n-word” on the playground. They have met with every level of administration possible, including the superintendent, and have been met with a lack of care towards these issues.
The film screening of “Pushout” ignited a large conversation about the discrimination and criminalization Black girls face in schools and that people, such as those in the room, should do what they can to support Black girls and fight to change institutional policies that make them vulnerable.
The ending phrase of the film echoed through Lisser Hall, “Black girls are sacred and loved.”