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Shining Light on the Discriminatory School Discipline Practices Hurting African American Girls

Did you know that during the 2011-12 school year, 12 percent [PDF] of all African American girls were suspended from school? That is a higher rate than any other group of girls, surpassed only by African American boys (20%) and American Indian/Alaska Native boys (13%). Did you know that during the 2006-07 school year, an average of 18 percent [PDF] of African American middle school girls were suspended, a rate surpassed only by African American boys?

These are just a couple of the data points discussed in a report released this week — although in the works for years now — by the National Women’s Law Center and the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund. The report, Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity, shines a rare spotlight on data showing the educational disparities between African American girls and other girls, the economic consequences of those disparities, the barriers that get in the way of their success, and interventions that could make a difference.

Beyond the differences in the number of suspensions African American girls and White girls receive, the report identifies issues behind school discipline decisions. For example, African American girls are disciplined more frequently than White girls for subjective offenses, and they typically face more severe punishments. In Ohio — one of the only states that requires schools to report discipline data broken down by race, gender, type of disciplinary sanction, and type of offense — African American girls were more likely than any other group of girls to be disciplined for “disobedient and disruptive behavior,” the most subjective and vague category of offenses. As the chart below demonstrates, African American girls were also significantly more likely than White girls to receive out-of-school suspensions; for the same type of misbehavior, White girls were more likely to get in-school suspensions.

Discipline Sanction Rates per 100 Female Students

As there is no evidence that African American girls misbehave at higher rates than other groups of students, these disparities may be due to race and gender stereotypes regarding “appropriate” female behavior. The frequency with which African American girls are disciplined for things like “disobedience” or “disruptive behavior” may simply reflect the implicit bias held by many school decision makers, based on pervasive stereotypes of Black girls as “loud” or “aggressive” as well as stereotypes that “good” girls are supposed to be passive, modest, and selfless. Disciplining African American girls more severely than White girls for fighting (again, see graph above) is also happening, perhaps because girls who express their anger by fighting defy stereotypes about what is appropriate and “ladylike.” 

How can we expect African American girls to succeed when even minor misbehavior is treated with such hostility based on race and gender stereotypes? Read our report for more information and concrete recommendations for change!