We Must End the Criminalization of Girls of Color

The criminalization of children of color is a growing and intensely disturbing phenomenon.  We’re seeing it at the border where families are separated and children placed in cages, and we’re increasingly seeing it in schools, where police are arresting children as young as six for behavioral, not criminal, issues.  

That’s what happened in Florida earlier this year, when police body camera videos were released that showed two Orlando police officers restraining 6-year-old Kaia Rolle with a zip tie and pushing her into a police car while she begged to be let go.  

Her offense?  The child, who was experiencing emotional problems related to sleep apnea, was screaming and pulling on a classroom door because she wanted to wear her sunglasses.  Although the school issued a statement that denied asking or directing the school resource officer to arrest the child, the police report said otherwise, stating that the assistant principal wanted to press charges.  But CNN obtained the document, which showed that the box citing a willingness to testify in court and prosecute criminally was unchecked.  

Why are we seeing such a rush to treat children like hardened criminals?  The answer has a lot to do with race.  African American girls like Kaia Rolle are six times more likely to receive out of school suspension than their white counterparts while in pre-school and are suspended three times more often than white girls in K-12 schools.  

A 2015 study titled “Black Girls Matter:  Pushed Out, Overpoliced And Underprotected,” by Kim Crenshaw for the African American Policy Forum and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School found “Black girls receive more severe sentences when they enter the juvenile justice system than do members of any other group of girls and they are also the fastest-growing population in the system.”  

The report found that girls who are suspended face a significantly greater likelihood of dropping out of school and are more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system.  

The school-to-prison pipeline is the result of policies, practices, conditions and failed conventional wisdom that spur both the criminalization of school-day incidents and the ways this criminalization leads to the incarceration of youth and young adults.   

For example, Kim Crenshaw’s report told of a 12-year old girl who faced expulsion and criminal charges after writing “hi” on a locker room wall of her Georgia middle school, and a 16-year-old Alabama girl who suffers from diabetes, asthma and sleep apnea who was hit with a book by her teacher after she fell asleep in class.  The student was later arrested and hospitalized due to injuries after an encounter with the police.  

The National Organization for Women (NOW) adopted a Resolution on Overcriminalization of Young Women And Girls Of Color in response to the racially discriminatory practices within publicly funded education institutions that result in disproportionate outcomes for Black and Brown girls.  We’re calling for legislation that establishes equitable guidelines for discipline and makes access to a nurturing, high-quality learning experience a priority.    

And we must restore the Obama Administration guidance directing schools to reduce racial disparities in how they discipline students.  

But our challenge is not just in the political or legislative realm.  It’s also in our society at large—in the popular culture, in the way we talk about these issues, and how we address the racial discrimination and prejudice that is on the upswing.  

In a 2017 study, Americans overall viewed Black girls as “less innocent and more mature for their age, from ages 5 to 14.”  Respondents also believed that “Black girls, compared to White girls, need less nurturing, less protection, to be supported less, to be comforted less, are more independent, know more about adult topics, and know more about sex.”  

The researchers described this as the “adultification” of Black girls and found that if they are viewed as less innocent and older, they are more likely to receive harsher, more severe punishment.  

The path from a 6-year old Black girl’s arrest to the death in prison of a Sandra Bland is all too plain to see.  The racist, misogynist and hate-fueled disproportionate harsh punishment of Black girls and women in the criminal justice system has to end.   

By Kim Porteous is the president of the Florida National Organization for Women and Toni Van Pelt is president of the National Organization for Women. 

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