How schools and the media criminalize Black girls

Sikivu Hutchinson | 5/8/2013, 5 p.m.

High stakes test question: A female science student conducts an experiment with chemicals that explode in a classroom, cause no damage and no injuries. Who gets to be the adventurous teenage genius mad scientist and who gets to be the criminal led away in handcuffs facing two felonies to juvenile hall?

If you're a White girl, check Box A. If you're an intellectually curious Black girl with good grades, check Box B. When 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot was arrested and expelled from Bartow High School in Florida for a science experiment gone awry, it exemplified a long American-as-apple pie tradition of criminalizing Black girls.

In many American classrooms, Black children are treated like ticking time bomb savages, shoved into special education classes, disproportionately suspended and expelled, then warehoused in opportunity schools, juvenile jails and adult prisons. Yet, while national discourse on the connection between school discipline and mass incarceration typically focuses on Black males, Black girls are suspended more than boys of every other ethnicity (except Black males).

At a Georgia elementary school in 2012, a 6-year-old African American girl was handcuffed by police after throwing a tantrum in the principal's office. Handcuffing disruptive Black elementary school students is not uncommon. It is perhaps the most extreme example of Black children's initiation into what has been characterized as the school-to-prison pipeline, or, more accurately, the cradle-to-grave pipeline. Stereotypes about dysfunctional violent Black children ensure that the myth of White children's relative innocence is preserved.

Nationwide, Black children spend more time in the dean's office, more time being opportunity-transferred to other campuses and more time cycling in and out of juvenile detention facilities than children of other ethnicities. Conservatives love to attribute this to poverty, broken homes, and the kind of Bell Curve dysfunction that demonizes "welfare queens" who pop out too many babies. Yet there is no compelling evidence that socioeconomic differences play a decisive role in these disparities.

The fact remains that Black children are criminalized by racist discipline policies regardless of whether they're privileged "Cosby kids" or are in foster care or homeless shelters. According to Daniel Losen and Russell Skiba, authors of the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Suspended Education" report, "ethnic and racial disproportionality in discipline persists even when poverty and other demographic factors are controlled."

National research such as the Southern Poverty Law Center's study and the Indiana Education Policy Center's 2000 "The Color of Discipline" report has consistently shown that Black students do not, in fact, "offend" at higher rates than their White and Latino counterparts. Middle-class African American students in higher-income schools are also disproportionately suspended.

This implies that Black students are perceived by adults as more viscerally threatening. "The Color of Discipline" report found that Black students were more likely to be referred out of class for lower level offenses such as excessive noise, disrespect, loitering and "threat." According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "race and gender disparities in suspension were due not to differences in administrative disposition but to differences in the rate of initial referral of Black and White students."