Black girls in Massachusetts are 3.9 times more likely to face school discipline than white girls, according to a report released last week that looked at three states.
The state’s disparity is slightly higher than that of Alabama, the report by the nonprofit Appleseed Network found, but lower than that of Kansas, where Black girls are 6.2 times more likely to be disciplined than their white counterparts.
The authors of the report, “Protecting Girls of Color from the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” said stark racial disparities in school discipline is a nationwide problem. But they chose to focus on girls, who they said should be included more in the national conversation on racial justice, and picked the three states to compare as case studies.
The Appleseed Network is a coalition of 16 centers throughout the United States and Mexico focused on social justice. The report was produced by the Appleseed centers in Massachusetts, Kansas, and Alabama, which are all actively doing research and programming on the school-to-prison pipeline.
Disparity in school discipline is a longstanding issue, but new momentum has emerged this summer to tackle systemic racism after protests nationwide followed the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people at the hands of police. That movement has brought calls to end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which students of color are disproportionately disciplined, suspended, expelled, and arrested in schools, leading them to be more likely to drop out and become involved with the criminal justice system.
The report shows “the indisputable need to include our classrooms in the ongoing dialogues about systemic racism currently sweeping the country,” said Deb Silva, executive director of Massachusetts Appleseed. “The school-to-prison pipeline is very much alive in Massachusetts, and this report is an important step forward in our work to advocate against the unjust school discipline policies that target and punish girls of color.”
The report found that in all three states, Black female students were far more likely than white ones to be suspended in school, suspended out of school, expelled, referred to law enforcement, and arrested.
Out-of-school suspensions affected the largest share of Black girls. Though Massachusetts’ racial disparities were generally comparable to the two other states, Kansas and Alabama both suspended a far larger portion of their Black female students from school.
In the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent year for which federal data was available, nearly 15 percent of Black female students in Kansas were suspended out of school, compared to 1.8 percent of white girls there. In Alabama, 16 percent of Black girls were suspended, compared to 3.3 percent of white female students.
Meanwhile, 6.5 percent of Black girls in Massachusetts were suspended from school that year, compared to just 1.3 percent of white girls. That means Black girls were 5 times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.
Elizabeth McIntyre, senior attorney with the Greater Boston Legal Services’ School-to-Prison Pipeline Intervention Project, which represents students from low-income families in discipline and special-education proceedings, said the report backed up her observations of how harshly staffers tend to treat students of color, compared to white students.
For example, McIntyre recalled one client, a 17-year-old Black girl in Boston who was helping plan her school’s prom in 2019 and became upset after learning the budget was slashed. The young woman wanted to speak to her counselor and left the classroom. A hall monitor ordered her to return to class or go to the dean’s office, or the monitor would call for back-up. The teenager kept walking. Four police officers approached her aggressively, and the teen backed into lockers, panicked and crying, McIntyre said. She was traumatized by the experience, and received a 10-day suspension.
“School staff see young Black women and girls as a threat, as somehow inherently dangerous,” McIntyre said. “That just would not have happened to a white teenage girl.”
Since 2014, when the state’s school discipline reform law took effect, Boston’s suspensions have declined, as they have statewide. And in 2018, Boston changed its policies as part of a settlement with three students of color who had sued and were represented by McIntyre’s team. The district stopped suspending kindergartners, first-graders, and second-graders, and stopped suspending older elementary-school students for “minor offenses,” the Globe reported at the time.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education started the Rethinking Discipline Initiative in 2016 to work with schools and districts to reduce inappropriate or excessive use of long-term suspension and expulsion, including disparate rates of punishment for students with disabilities and students of color. Between 2013 and 2018, an August report from The Education Trust found, the rate of out-of-school suspensions of Black girls in Massachusetts fell from 16 per 100 to 9 per 100.
“This is an area of continued work,” a DESE spokeswoman said, but “we are making progress.”
The racial disparities are caused by racism, McIntyre said, so hiring leaders and staff members of color would probably help ensure that young Black and brown people are treated fairly.
McIntyre said school districts should also consider reductions or bans on suspensions and expulsions. And, she added, they should reconsider the presence of law enforcement in schools and the impact they have on students.
The report supports policies like a December 2019 proposed bill by Representative Ayanna Pressley called the “Ending Pushout Act,” which aims to reduce suspensions and expulsions from school.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.