How and Why Girls are Getting Pushed Out of School, and what should be done about it: An Interview with Monique W. Morris and C. Nicole Mason
“The full inclusion of Black Girls in the conversation about school discipline, pushout, and criminalization is important because it affects them—and their well-being is worthy of investment.”
–Monique Morris, author of PUSHOUT and co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute
In her new groundbreaking book, PUSHOUT, Monique Morris explores the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline on the education and futures of Black girls in neighborhoods and cities across the country. She says that the over-reliance on punitive measures in schools coupled with the lack of gender specific models that address the unique needs of Black and Latina girls in the juvenile and criminal legal systems make it difficult to provide support and services to girls ensnared in the system.
With PUSHOUT, Morris hopes to spark a long overdue conversation, help communities generate solutions and strategies rooted in the lived experiences and realities of Black girls, and tell the stories of the girls often excluded from national discussions on the criminalization of youth and discipline in schools.
CNM: You have been doing this work around girls in the criminal legal system for quite some time. Most recently, you wrote a report for the African-American Policy Forum entitled, Race, Gender and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls. Why did you decide to write PUSHOUT?
MWM: For a long time, there were only a handful of us doing work around the country on girls of color in the juvenile justice and criminal legal system and when we raised the question—“what about the girls,” there were few answers or models to address the unique pathways to criminalization and performance in school. It’s nice to be in a centered discussion on the impact of race and gender on school-to-confinement pathways and to be a part of an emerging network willing to have this conversation.
I am hoping PUSHOUT will be used as a tool for personal education and to help guide our thinking on how to construct local and national policy interventions, strategies and research around justice and education reform.
“Black girls are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, representing 33 percent of detained female youth, but only 14 percent of the general population.”
CNM: What I like most about PUSHOUT are the voices of the young women that are weaved throughout your analysis, can you talk about why you thought it was important to include those stories?
MWM: In the mid-90s, I worked with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and visited several juvenile detention facilities. There, I spoke with young people about their pathways to confinement and how we might work to improve the structures and systems so that they might have the support and services they needed not return to correctional facilities. And when I visited, I made sure to visit the girls’ unit. And what I heard there were stories of extreme victimization, sexual and physical abuse and violence. These stories and experiences were not making it into mainstream or national discussions and strategies about juvenile justice and education reform. Over time, I have come to understand the power of the narrative. It’s important to center the girls’ stories as we seek to understand phenomena that affect them.
“Being abused and/or neglected as a child increases the risk of arrest among children by 59 percent and among adults by 28 percent.”
CNM: In the book, you talk a great deal about the history of the representation of Black Girls in the U.S. and how negative stereotypes and representations contribute to the criminalization of Black girls in schools and the public response when there is harm done to girls. Can you say more about this?
MWM: Black girls’ nonconformity to gender expectations that align with behaviors normed to White middle class ideals may prompt educators to respond more negatively to their behavior. When girls speak out, their forms of expression are often misunderstood or misinterpreted by those in positions of authority like teachers, counselors or law enforcement. For example, what might be questioning to better understand an issue or condition may be perceived as defiance. Their clothing, the way they walk, or the volume of their voices or laughter often inform how adults respond to them. Without a true understanding of culture and the lives of girls, these things are often interpreted as affronts to authority, aggressive, or disruptive.
“A study found teachers often perceived Black girls as being “loud, defiant and precocious,” and Black girls were more likely than their White or Latina peers to be reprimanded for being “unladylike.”
CNM: What do you see as the root cause of the problem of the school-to-prison pipeline for girls of color?
MWM: In schools, we have policies that promote punishment to correct behavior and that provides little to no leeway for young people to explore the root causes of their problematic behavior or to learn from their mistakes and maintain their relationships with school. We have to ask ourselves why Black girls are more likely to be victims of corporal punishment in schools or suspended and expelled at disproportionately higher rates than other girls?
Often, these girls are responding to trauma and the marginalization they experience within multiple systems. We can’t push girls out of school and think that it is solving the problem; it’s not. Pushing them out of school doesn’t create a sense of safety, respond to the root causes of their behaviors, or allow us to fully engage them as learners so that they can rebound from their mistake. I believe there is a greater role for schools and
CNM: How can PUSHOUT be used by the Young Women’s Initiative here at The New York Women’s Foundation, schools and the larger philanthropic community to support girls in school or who are involved in the juvenile justice system?
MWM: First, I believe we cannot talk about the well-being of girls without engaging this conversation about education because that’s where girls are spending most of their day, in school. When we talk about ways to facilitate their long-term development and ways to increase their earning potential over time, making sure girls have a solid educational foundation is critical. We know that education is a critical protective factor against future contact with the juvenile justice and criminal legal system.
I also believe we need to intentionally invest in the education of girls. There should be support and funding for innovations at the state and federal levels that disrupt the school-to-confinement pathways and scale up programs that have demonstrated positive outcomes for girls.
CNM: I have one last question: What can families and communities do to support of girls and push back against harmful or harsh policies in schools?
MWM: At the end of the book, I have a short set of questions and answers for parents and community members about the ways they can support girls or launch conversations in communities about co-constructing safety and resisting punitive policies in schools. Ultimately though, I believe we need to radically shift how we frame and understand “risk” and “violence” in communities and actively work to end the violence and the sexual victimization of girls.