Toria Bowens, 18, a senior at Jena High School, sits with freshman Jimekia Howard, 14, as they watch supporters of the "Jena 6" arrive in Jena, Louisiana, in 2007. A new report looks at how girls of color are faring in schools today. Sean Gardner/Reuters

Specialized support for young black men in schools is necessary, but young black women face their own distinct challenges.

In New York City public schools, black boys are disciplined six times more often than their white counterparts. This should concern everyone. In those same schools, black girls are disciplined 10 times more often than white girls. Even more alarming.

The story's the same in Boston. Though less than a third of the girls enrolled in Boston schools during the 2011–2012 school year were black, 61 percent of the girls who were punished during this span were African American. Black girls are disciplined 11 times more often than white girls, a gulf much broader than the (sizable) gap between black boys and white boys.

Policymakers are looking for new answers for the achievement gap between black and white students. My colleague Laura Bliss just wrote up an effort to put books in barbershops to promote reading among young black boys. And as Nora Biette-Timmons explains for The Atlantic, officials in Washington, D.C., plan to invest $20 million in support for black and Latino boys, the signature effort being a boys-only high school for the majority-black, underserved area east of the Anacostia River.

The college-prep school for boys is controversial: It's a solution that's both dramatic and badly needed. The program that puts books in barbershops is as low key as it is promising. But both of these efforts raise the same question: What about girls of color?

A report from the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School and the African American Policy Forum puts that question into perspective. "Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected" shows that black girls experience severe stress in the public schools system.

That stress that girls of color face is unique. Some of these stress factors may be particular to their gender and race. And right now, these issues do not garner the same level of scrutiny as the circumstances holding back boys of color.

"Black Girls Matter" focuses on the experience of black girls in Boston and New York City schools as well as the experience of girls nationwide (to the extent that data exist). In both New York and Boston schools, the ratios of suspension rates between black and white students were larger for girls than for boys. The same goes for expulsions. While more black boys are disciplined absolutely, more black girls are punished relatively speaking.

In New York City during the 2011–2012 school year, no white girls were expelled, making it impossible to calculate a ratio. However, "the magnitude of the disparity can be captured by simply imagining that one white girl had been expelled," the report reads (emphasis retained). "Were that the case, the ratio would be 53:1."

The problem is larger than these particular public school systems. Put simply: Black girls are punished more often than white girls, and they're punished more severely than black boys.

The U.S. Department of Education finds that, for the 2011–2012 school year, schools nationwide suspended black girls six times more often than white girls. (For boys, the ratio was 3:1.) While black boys were suspended in greater numbers, black girls were suspended at higher rates relative to their white counterparts: Across the country, 12 percent of black girls were suspended in the 2011–2012 academic year, compared to just two percent of white girls.

"Overall, the observations of participants and stakeholders in this report indicate that Black girls face obstacles both similar to and different from those confronted by their male counterparts," the report reads.

Girls of color face special difficulties in school. Pregnancy is maybe the most obvious one. Pregnancy and parenting put burdens on girls trying to get through school, especially in under-resourced communities marked by poverty, unemployment, and food insecurity. Yet teen pregnancy alone doesn't explain the specific troubles that black girls face in public schools: Among racial and ethnic student populations, black girls have shown the sharpest decline in birth rates since 1990.

(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

The report identifies a few factors exclusive to the experience of girls of color that may undermine their success early on. One comes in the form of higher expectations.

"Research suggests that Black girls sometimes get less attention than their male counterparts early in their school careers because they are perceived to be more socially mature and self-reliant," the report reads. "The lack of attention can lead to 'benign neglect' that may diminish school attachment in both high- and moderate-achieving female students."

While black boys of lower means face a world of violence inside and outside of school, black girls face a special hell of sexual harassment and violence in addition. Girls of color are often unable to defend themselves from sexual bullying inside and outside of school. The special prohibition on black student violence that exists in many schools may hinder their own protection. "[Z]ero-tolerance policies may exacerbate the vulnerability of girls to harassing behavior because it penalizes them for defending themselves against such acts," the report reads.

School teachers and administrators are not prepared to intervene in the face of the overwhelming sexual intimidation that black girls face on a daily basis. It's horrifying, but the authority figures responsible for preventing sexual harassment in schools may even contribute to the permissive environment that makes sexual bullying so prevalent.

Here, for example, is testimony from the report, which includes insights from teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders in New York and Boston schools:

It was remarkable how teachers have a culture of sweeping it under the rug. They will say that ‘boys will be boys’; ‘this is sexual awakening.’ Yet they know all the gossip, they know all the stuff that is happening. . . . [T]hey even talked about girls feeling shamed coming to school, like they can’t concentrate because the boys are making comments—lewd comments—constantly pressuring them to have sex with them. Slapping their butts and bras, and just sort of forcing themselves on them against the wall or the locker.

And this is another typical anecdote:

There is this one story where a girl got a lot of attention from a boy, and he kept pressuring her for sex, and her father was trying to get teachers to help his daughter. He was saying that she can’t go to school anymore if you don’t do something, and the teachers were like ‘good, take her out, she attracts too much attention from our boys.’ I was waiting for another group of teachers to chime in, and they all kind of agreed. This isn’t just an isolated incident. Teachers aren’t the role models of gender equity. . .

Gender norms can be frustrating for girls of color in ways that are less violent yet still insidious. Teachers come down harder on girls than boys when they act out in the classroom, the researchers say. In the same vein, girls are expected to be more mature than boys in the classroom, emotionally and academically—which can lead to their achievements going overlooked.

Stopping sexual violence and sexual bullying in schools is one of the report's first and foremost recommendations for improving the performance of girls of color in school. That means ensuring that school personnel actually do their jobs by providing a safe environment for students.

Another target for reform is the over-reliance on punitive behavior remedies that put black girls into the orbit of the juvenile justice system (rather than restorative remedies, like counseling). The report also recommends that the U.S. Department of Education disaggregate certain data that occlude race and gender findings. These are suggestions that will help black girls and boys alike.

The report's final recommendation is both telling and heartbreaking: "Develop the public will to address the challenges facing black girls and other girls of color through elevating their experiences and engaging stakeholders to become actively involved in their welfare."

In other words, the public has to learn to care more for girls of color.

At a glance, a boys-only school meant to address the welfare of boys of color would seem to show one way forward. Why not invest just as much in the future of black girls? It seems like it would be almost difficult to build a boys-only school and not create a girls-only school in the process.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of an abandoned building in Providence, Rhode Island.
    Perspective

    There's No Such Thing as a Dangerous Neighborhood

    Most serious urban violence is concentrated among less than 1 percent of a city’s population. So why are we still criminalizing whole areas?

  2. a photo of a WeWork office building
    Life

    What WeWork’s Demise Could Do to NYC Real Estate

    The troubled coworking company is the largest office tenant in New York City. What happens to the city’s commercial real estate market if it goes under?

  3. a photo of cyclists riding beside a streetcar in the Mid Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California.
    Transportation

    San Francisco’s Busiest Street Is Going Car-Free

    A just-approved plan will redesign Market Street to favor bikes, pedestrians, and public transit vehicles. But the vote to ban private cars didn’t happen overnight.

  4. Life

    Why Do Instagram Playgrounds Keep Calling Themselves Museums?

    The bustling industry of immersive, Instagram-friendly experiences has put a new spin on the word museum.

  5. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

×