Rep. Ayanna Pressley on Friday is reintroducing legislation aimed at ending the disproportionate punishment and detention girls of color face in schools.
Although boys are suspended and disciplined in school in greater numbers, the disparity between Black girls and White girls is even starker: Research shows that Black girls are suspended six to seven times as often as White girls. Black boys were suspended three times as often as White boys, according to the African American Policy Forum’s Black Girls Matter report.
Pressley told The 19th she wants to disrupt the school-to-confinement pipeline, which can begin as early as preschool. Black children account for more than 42 percent of preschool suspensions despite making up less than 20 percent of preschool enrollment, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. The trend continues as children get older: Research shows that girls of color are often criminalized for communication styles and expressions.
“People keep referencing this reckoning that we’re in the midst of on racial injustice,” Pressley said. “We have to be committed to dismantling all systems of oppression, and that has got to include discriminatory policies that criminalize adolescent behavior, and disproportionately impact girls of color.”
The bill, first introduced in December 2019, includes $2.5 billion in grant funding to states and schools that ban discipline for infractions of dress code or appearance and grooming policies, for which girls of color are more likely to be suspended.
Grantees would also have to eliminate most suspensions for kids in prekindergarten through 5th grade; end corporal punishment; and end partnerships with police, the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The funding would incentivize training in implicit bias; trauma-informed training; and investment in counselors, social workers and mental health professionals.
What Pressley also hopes the legislation would achieve is restorative justice for kids who are “criminalized for how you show up in the world.” Black girls are often viewed as older than they are, which contributes to more punitive measures and greater use of force. A report from The National Black Women’s Justice Institute says Black girls are four times more likely to be arrested on school grounds than their White peers. Native and Indigenous girls are three times more likely to be suspended than White girls, according to a report from the National Women’s Law Center. LGBTQ+ students of color report higher rates of detention, and more than double the rate of suspensions, according to research from GLSEN, an education nonprofit advocating for LGBTQ+ youth .
“The criminalization is intersectional, like other forms of oppression,” Pressley said.
The legislation is called the Ending Punitive, Unfair, School-based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma Act, or the Ending PUSHOUT Act, taking its name from a term coined by scholar Monqiue Morris, who wrote “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.” Her research illustrates how the punitive culture Black girls face in school pushes them out into the streets and the prison system.
Following the 2017 suspension of two Black girls from a Boston-area charter school for wearing braids, Morris and then-Boston council member Pressley developed focus groups to study the way Black girls in Boston were being punished in schools. In 2018, their research, which included first-person accounts from school-age girls of color, found that Black and Latinx girls were more likely to be suspended and disciplined than White girls.
Pressley said she brings lived experience to this work as a “Black woman who used to be a Black girl,” and also as a mother of a 12-year-old girl, whom she wants to be free from fear, criminalization and trauma.
Morris sees the Ending PUSHOUT Act as a way to address policies, practices and conditions in schools that put girls at risk for future contact with the courts and make them “locations for healing” instead.
“Black girls and other girls of color continue to experience disparities in school discipline, and as a result, other negative learning outcomes,” Morris said in a statement. “Now that students are returning to school after having collectively experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacted communities of color, it is important to cultivate learning environments that are nurturing and responsive to trauma.”
Even as the pandemic forced most students to attend classes virtually, discipline was applied unfairly. Pressley was moved to reintroduce her legislation by ProPublica’s reporting on Grace, a Black teenage girl in Michigan who’d been incarcerated for not completing her homework. Pressley said she hopes the bill will end the larger pattern of criminalizing Black girls for minor behavior at school.
“It’s really just highlighted the extent that Black girls are policed in their learning environment, including when they are learning remotely,” Pressley said. “I just want to make sure that we are including these discriminatory policies, and that we are not leaving out of our dismantling systems of oppression our school communities.”
The bill currently has no sponsors in the Senate. In the House, it is co-sponsored by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Pressley is hopeful that the Biden-Harris administration will be receptive to this effort, as they’ve already committed to tackling racial and criminal justice during their tenure.
“I just don’t want our young people and our school communities to be left out of this discussion and, certainly, I don’t want them to be left out of the work,” Pressley said.