The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 25, 2016

African American girls and the school-to-prison pipeline: Who are our sisters’ keepers?

May 25, 2016

In October, the nation reacted in horror when a video surfaced of a white school police officer brutally assaulting an African American high school student while she was sitting at her desk. The teen’s infraction? Looking at her cell phone during class, and then refusing to leave when asked.

After the incident, she and a student recording the confrontation were arrested for disturbing the peace. Later, news reports revealed that some students referred to the 300-pound officer as “Officer Slam” for getting physical with students.

That same month, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed—another student arrested at school, in this case for bringing in a homemade clock—was offered support and scholarships and visited the White House. The girl slammed at her desk received a cast on her arm.  

Education budgets continue to be slashed across the country, but many schools are still able to find money for school-based officers, whose presence does not necessarily make schools safer. Academics, advocates, and service providers have begun tracing “the school-to-prison pipeline,” recognizing that the roots of mass incarceration start years before a person is sitting in a cell, back when he or she was a child sitting at a desk.

One in three African American men will be incarcerated in his lifetime, but what about African American girls? Though women compose only about 7 percent of the national jail and prison population, they are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. Despite this reality, little conversation surrounding the school-to-prison pipeline focuses on girls.

The discipline disparity among girls

It’s true that African American boys are more likely than any other student group to face school-based arrest, suspension, and expulsion, but the disparities in school discipline between African American girls and their white counterparts are far greater. African American boys are over three times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their white counterparts, but African American girls are six times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their white counterparts.

Rates of out-of-school suspension by race and gender for the 2011–2012 school year

One study found that while no white girls were expelled from New York City schools during the 2011–12 school year, if one had been, African American girls’ expulsion rate would have been 53 times greater.

Punished for what?

These staggering statistics beg the question: what are we punishing African American girls for? The answer paints an even bleaker picture.

One in four girls born in the United States will experience some kind of sexual victimization before she turns 18, leading to trauma and health-compromising outcomes such as mental health issues and physical pain. Many of these girls become involved in the juvenile justice system—and it starts in school.

Girls are most commonly arrested for truancy, running away, and substance use and abuse, all of which are manifestations of trauma. During the 2011–12 school year, African American girls were almost three times more likely than white girls to be arrested or referred to law enforcement in school. Arrest and incarceration exacerbates these symptoms of trauma, often trapping girls in a cycle of criminal justice system involvement.

What can we do?

The My Brother’s Keeper Task Force is an “effort to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color.” But what are we doing to help girls?

The road to prison is gendered, necessitating comprehensive and targeted programming to address the unique needs and challenges facing African American girls. Some research-backed ways we could dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline for girls include

My Brother’s Keeper has shed light on and offered solutions to the struggles encountered by boys and young men of color as they grow up and enter adulthood. Who will be our sisters’ keepers?

Photo by Troy Aossey/Getty Images

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