Discipline for schoolgirls differs by race and skin tone

The New York Times this morning describes data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights showing that African-American girls tend to face more serious school discipline than white girls.  “For all the attention placed on problems that black boys face in terms of school discipline and criminal justice, there is increasing focus on the way those issues affect black girls as well.”  Black girls who get in trouble at school are also more frequently referred to the criminal justice system, where they can incur a criminal record that sticks with them into adulthood.

The article tells the story of 12-year-old Mikia, who was charged with a crime after she and a friend wrote graffiti on the walls of a gym bathroom at Dutchtown Middle School in Henry County, Georgia.  The incident was a surprise to her parents, since Mikia was a good student who had not been in any trouble before:

Even more of a surprise was the penalty after her family disputed the role she was accused of playing in the vandalism and said it could not pay about $100 in restitution. While both students were suspended from school for a few days, Mikia had to face a school disciplinary hearing and, a few weeks later, a visit by a uniformed officer from the local Sheriff’s Department, who served her grandmother with papers accusing Mikia of a trespassing misdemeanor and, potentially, a felony.

As part of an agreement with the state to have the charges dismissed in juvenile court, Mikia admitted to the allegations of criminal trespassing. Mikia, who is African-American, spent her summer on probation, under a 7 p.m. curfew, and had to complete 16 hours of community service in addition to writing an apology letter to a student whose sneakers were defaced in the incident.

Her friend, who is white, was let go after her parents paid restitution.

Michael J. Tafelski, a lawyer from the Georgia Legal Services Program who represented Mikia GIRLS-articleLargein the school disciplinary hearing, said his office had filed a complaint with the Justice Department claiming racial discrimination and a violation of the Civil Rights Act:

“I’ve never had a white kid call me for representation in Henry County,” Mr. Tafelski said.


“What kid needs to be having a conversation with a lawyer about the right to remain silent?” he said. “White kids don’t have those conversations; black kids do.”

A study conducted by Villanova sociologists shows that skin tone also affects the rate of school discipline. Among a cohort of African Americans, girls with darker skin tone were three times more likely to be suspended than girls with lighter skin tone:

There are different gender expectations for black girls compared with white girls, said Lance Hannon, a Villanova sociology professor who conducted the analysis. And, he said, there are different expectations within cross-sections of black girls. “When a darker-skinned African-American female acts up, there’s a certain concern about their boyish aggressiveness,” Dr. Hannon said, “that they don’t know their place as a female, as a woman.”

The long-term damage done by school disciplinary practices is aggravated when it is perceived as unfair:

Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, whose office published a report on school discipline in March that offered recommendations for how to improve disciplinary practices in schools, said the discrepancies in disciplinary practices were not lost on young girls of color.

“The felt experience of too many of our girls in school is that they are being discriminated against,” she said.  “The message we send when we suspend or expel any student is that that student is not worthy of being in the school,” Ms. Lhamon said. “That is a pretty ugly message to internalize and very, very difficult to get past as part of an educational career.”

When school discipline results in a criminal record, it is difficult to get past as part of life in general.