The recent revelations about missing Black and Latina girls in Washington, D.C. raises some questions that go beyond the facts as reported in the media. A spokesperson for Washington D.C.’s mayor said, “oftentimes these girls are repeat runaways…So if we really want to help solve this problem and bring down the numbers we have to break the cycle of young people, especially young girls, who repeatedly run away from home.”
This begs the question: what role are schools playing in this phenomenon?
In too many schools, zero-tolerance policies prioritize discipline over educational attainment, with disproportionate impacts on students of color. Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls, and three times more likely than Black boys, for the same behavior. Students suspended or expelled are in turn three times more likely to be drawn into the juvenile justice system the following year.
What’s more, girls are sexually abused at a rate over 4 times higher than boys, and their behavioral reaction to trauma is often criminalized. Traumatic experiences are in fact often the cause for girls’ involvement in the criminal justice system including sexual violence (31 percent), physical abuse (41 percent), and family violence (84 percent).
Federal law, in the form of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, requires all federally-funded schools to provide girls an equal educational opportunity. That surely includes providing trauma-informed services–instead of punishment and pushout–to help survivors recover from their trauma, stay in school, and thrive.
We commend Congressional Black Caucus chair Cedric Richmond and DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton for calling on the Justice Department to support the District’s investigations into the missing girls, and we appreciate Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposal for new initiatives to find missing children and support organizations that assist at-risk teens.
Along with these measures, NOW calls on schools to comply with Title IX and ensure an equal educational opportunity, including appropriate screenings and services, for students who are survivors of trauma.
Instead of dismissing the District’s missing Black and Latina girls as “runaways,” we need to ask whether their schools failed to give them the attention, compassion, and resources they may have needed. Their lives matter.