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A just society doesn’t criminalize girls

Ayanna Pressley & Dr. Monique W. Morris, Ed.D.

Too frequently, educational justice is denied for girls — especially for girls of color. Schools should be the safest place for our children and yet, for many girls of color, the school environment adds painful weight to their already heavy emotional backpacks.

Across our country, black and brown girls are pushed out of school not because they pose any sort of threat, but for simply being who they are. Society too often deems our hair too distracting and our bodies too provocative, our voices too loud, and our attitudes too mean — demeaning our very existence before we even reach adulthood. According to the National Women’s Law Center, black girls in preschool are 54 percent of the girls receiving out-of-school suspensions despite making up only 20 percent of girls enrolled in preschool. Preschool.

We are internalizing oppression before we’ve learned to read or write.

From kindergarten to 12th grade, black girls are seven times more likely than white girls to be suspended from school, and four times more likely to be arrested at school. Latinx girls are more than 1.5 times as likely as white girls to receive an out of school suspension, and Native American girls are suspended at three times the rate of white girls. When we unfairly discipline our girls, we rob them of their childhood by treating them as if they need less protection, nurturing, and comfort than other children. We fail to see their humanity and we fail to respond to the adverse childhood experiences that so many of us experience in our youth.

These disturbing discrepancies are the result of a failure to cultivate schools as locations for healing so that they can be locations for learning.

The policies and unfair practices that disproportionately push girls of color from institutions of learning stem from deeply entrenched biases that require bold, community-based solutions to correct. Now is the time to support relationship-building, mental health support, and restorative interventions, as opposed to unfair and exclusionary discipline.

This alarming crisis is what led to the development of the Ending Punitive, Unfair, School-based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma Act. The Ending PUSHOUT Act aims to dismantle school-to-confinement pathways by creating an ecosystem within our schools where all children, especially children of color, can heal and thrive.

In order to create safe and nurturing school environments for all students, the Ending PUSHOUT Act emphasizes gender-specific and culturally-responsive protocols and policies that work to intentionally and holistically support girls of color. The bill establishes new federal grants to support states and districts that commit to ban unfair and discriminatory school discipline practices; it protects the Civil Rights Data Collection and strengthens the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, both of which have been threatened by the Trump administration; and it establishes a Federal Interagency Taskforce to End the School Pushout crisis, to measure the efficacy of these reforms and share best practices.

The Ending PUSHOUT Act challenges schools to ban most suspensions and expulsions for our youngest learners in pre-k through 5th grade; ban suspensions and expulsions in all grades for minor infractions such as tardiness and violations of dress codes and hair policies; and ban the heinous practice of corporal punishment, which is still legal in 19 states.

The Ending PUSHOUT Act is the first of many bills stemming from Representative Pressley’s People’s Justice Guarantee — a bold, progressive resolution outlining a new vision for the American legal system that makes good on the promise of justice for all. Achieving this vision requires all of us to dismantle the systems of oppression and control that have unfairly policed and criminalized marginalized communities for generations. The Ending PUSHOUT Act does just that, centering the experiences of young girls of color and keeping them out of the criminal legal system and in the classroom where they can learn, thrive, and develop the skills necessary to achieve their dreams.

US Representative Ayanna Pressley represents Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District. Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is the creator of the documentary “PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” and the Founder and President of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute.

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