Raising the Voices of African American Girls Who Have Been Mistreated in Their Schools

Raising the Voices of African American Girls Who Have Been Mistreated in Their Schools

The following was written by Adwoa Obeng, a rising senior at George Washington University.  The EducationCounsel team was fortunate to have Adwoa as our summer intern, during which she supported several core projects and activities.  Adwoa has a deep passion for equity in education, especially for students of color and young girls.  The blog reflects her experience and her recommendations for how to improve the experiences of young girls of color.

Girls are often told they can be anything they want to be, but what is rarely said is that what they look like matters greatly. African American girls are one of the most at-risk student groups in the United States, and often face substantial barriers to reaching their full potential. In Michigan, a 15-year-old African American girl was incarcerated during the COVID-19 pandemic because she violated her probation by not completing her schoolwork. In Sacramento, a 9-year-old African American girl was suspended and kicked out of her virtual classroom because she was asking too many questions via the chat section. This treatment is not isolated or limited to the classroom. In the 2017-2018 school year, African American girls were four times more likely to be expelled, four times more likely to be suspended from school, and five times more likely to be arrested than Caucasian girls.

When I was 13, I was one of these statistics.

In middle school, I faced constant bullying from one of my classmates – a classmate who was a Caucasian girl. I never spoke to my teachers about it because I knew it would be downplayed and my voice would not be heard. After yet another instance of harassment, I chose to defend myself, but I was the only student to face consequences. Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique. 

African American girls are criminalized at rates that are significantly higher than any other demographic. The U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights found that students of color, particularly African American students, were six times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than Caucasian students and four times as likely to receive in-school suspensions. The graph below shows the specific disparity of African American female students’ experience in the education system.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights: Civil Rights Data Collection

It is evident in the graph above that African American girls face significantly greater disciplinary actions compared to other student groups. Although African American female students have the lowest enrollment rate, they face the highest rates of discretionary discipline.  Studies show that in many instances this disparity is due to implicit or explicit bias and the behavior of African American girls being misjudged as more aggressive.

Prior to me being suspended, I was called into the principal’s office to explain myself. While sharing my story, I confessed to my actions and attempted to explain that my actions were in self-defense. From mocking my name, to violating my personal space, this latest instance was yet another time that my peers treated me as less than. When speaking with my principal, I was distraught and in tears. Instead of responding with sympathy and acknowledging my vulnerability at that moment, I was yelled at by a school official because of my tone and emotions. Rather than being treated like the 13-year-old child I was, I was targeted and spoken to like an adult.

According to Georgetown Law, adults view African American girls as more adult-like and less innocent than Caucasian girls. Another study showsthat adults believe African American girls ages 5-19 need less nurturing, protection, support and comfort than Caucasian girls of the same age, and that African American girls are more independent. These negative stereotypes are detrimental to the lives of African American girls, and to African American women when these same stereotypes are carried throughout the rest of their lives. Moreover, the adultification of African American girls dehumanizes the essence of a child’s identity and innocence, and harms their development. 

I was suspended for three days, while my classmate, the one who initiated the altercation, was not suspended. She was still allowed to come to school, engage with friends, and receive her full education, whereas I had to stay home because school officials believed it would “diffuse the situation.” Middle school discipline falls heavily on vulnerable kids, especially during a moment that is such a vital point in their academic and social development. For girls, middle school is usually when they start to grasp what society really expects from them.  

If teachers and administrators do not think of ways to end the systemic oppression of young African Americans in their school, African American girls will continue to be vilified and mistreated.  Reflecting on my personal experiences in middle school, and now being a young professional working in education research and policy, there were several ways that my teachers and my principal could have enhanced my education experience – for myself and my peers of color. These recommendations, if implemented, would have allowed my experience in middle school to be more fruitful, and I likely wouldn’t be writing about this today as an adult.

Stop Ageing Girls of Color: African American girls routinely experience adultification bias which is linked to harsher treatment and higher standards for them in school. Teachers should stop treating African American girls in developmentally inappropriate ways, and should eliminate misconceptions of their female students.

Create Better, Safer, Learning Environments, and Diversify the Teaching Profession: There are several factors that contribute to the mistreatment of African American girls in school – including socio-economic status, racial bias, and decreased empathy for African American girls. It is fundamental in the development of African American girls that administrators create safer environments for girls of color, including by having more teachers and educators that reflect their experiences. A teacher that resembles a student’s racial identity not only supports stronger relationships with students and improves their experience, but can also strengthen their academic development.

Amplify Student Voices: Student experiences matter and they should be central to any efforts to improve a school culture. By amplifying a student’s voice, it gives the student the opportunity to discuss and reflect on the current leadership and strategies that are being implemented in school. Teachers and administrators should create a survey for all students to see if they have endured any form of bullying and racial bias, and ask students what they can be doing to make sure those negative experiences never repeat. This will allow teachers and administrators to recognize areas that are in need of improvement.

Implement culturally affirming and responsive teaching practices: If teachers actively seek to understand the cultural beliefs and backgrounds of their students, not only will it allow the students to feel recognized, but students will also know that their teachers recognize and respect their identities and cultures. Administrators and teachers should create trainings and workshops that are designed to enhance their cultural knowledge.

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