From Science Class To School-to-Prison? Criminalizing Black Girls

By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson; originally published at Feminist Wire

kiera wilmotHigh stakes test question: a female science student conducts an experiment with chemicals that explode in a classroom, causing no damage and no injuries.  Who gets to be the adventurous teenage genius scientist and who gets to be the criminal led away in handcuffs facing two felonies to juvenile hall? If you’re a white girl, check Box A; if you’re an intellectually curious black girl with good grades, check Box B.

When 16 year-old Kiera Wilmot was arrested and expelled from Bartow High School in Florida for a science experiment gone awry, it exemplified a long American-as-apple pie tradition of criminalizing black girls.  In many American classrooms black children are treated like ticking time bomb savages, shoved into special education classes, disproportionately suspended and expelled–then warehoused in opportunity schools, juvenile jails, and adult prisons.  Yet, while national discourse on the connection between school discipline and mass incarceration typically focuses on black males, black girls are suspended more than boys of every other ethnicity (except black males).  At a Georgia elementary school in 2012, a six-year-old African American girl was handcuffed by the police after throwing a tantrum in the principal’s office.[i]  Handcuffing disruptive black elementary school students is not uncommon.  It is perhaps the most extreme example of black children’s initiation into what has been characterized as the school-to-prison pipeline, or, more accurately, the cradle-to-grave pipeline.  Stereotypes about dysfunctional violent black children ensure that the myth of white children’s relative innocence is preserved.

Nationwide, black children spend more time in the dean’s office, more time being opportunity transferred to other campuses and more time cycling in and out of juvenile detention facilities than children of other ethnicities.  Conservatives love to attribute this to poverty, broken homes, and the kind of Bell Curve dysfunction that demonizes “welfare queens” who pop out too many babies.  Yet there is no compelling evidence that socioeconomic differences play a decisive role in these disparities.[ii]  The fact remains that black children are criminalized by racist discipline policies regardless of whether they’re privileged “Cosby kids” or are in foster care or homeless shelters.  According to Daniel Losen and Russell Skiba, authors of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Suspended Education” report, “ethnic and racial disproportionality in discipline persists even when poverty and other demographic factors are controlled.[iii]

National research such as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s study and the Indiana Education Policy Center’s 2000 “The Color of Discipline”report has consistently shown that black students do not, in fact, “offend” at higher rates than their white and Latino counterparts.[iv] Middle-class African American students in higher-income schools are also disproportionately suspended.  This implies that black students are perceived by adults as more viscerally threatening.  “The Color of Discipline” report found that black students were more likely to be referred out of class for lower level offenses such as excessive noise, disrespect, loitering and “threat.”[v]  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “race and gender disparities in suspension were due not to differences in administrative disposition, but to differences in the rate of initial referral of black and white students.”

When it comes to black girls, the widespread perception that they are dangerous, hostile, and ineducable is promoted and reinforced by mainstream media portrayals.  Historically, black women have never been regarded as anybody’s “fairer sex” because white women have always been the universal standard for femininity, humanity, and moral worth.  On contemporary TV and in film, heroic white women abound as “new” models of bold, adventurous, breakthrough femininity.  Writing on “women’s” TV portrayals recently in the L.A. Times, Mary McNamara gushed about how the current crop of small-screen female protagonists were complexly layered, daring departures from the typical crone, slut, and mother roles of the past.  According to McNamara, “TV’s female leads are breaking ground with their unexpected choices. Thanks to the feminist revolution and TV’s increasing ascendancy, women are allowed to make mistakes without paying the ultimate price. It’s all quite refreshing.”

Yet, once again, the “feminist revolution” is lily-white and overexposed.  McNamara hails characters from House of Cards, HBO’s swaggering white-fest Girls and Homeland, then blithely acknowledges that the female protagonists of these shows are all white and mostly middle class.  Previous pieces from both the L.A. Times and the New York Times have saluted the rise of ass-kicking female adventurers like those in the Hunger Games, Zero Dark Thirty and (even) Pixar’s animated movie Brave, as evidence that Hollywood is becoming more receptive to strong independent female characters.

But back in the image ghetto, substantive, much less starring roles for women of color are still less abundant than Aunt Jemima’s head scarf.  The endless parade of reality-show swill featuring hypersexua,l “out of control” brawling black women has long dwarfed dramatic mainstream portrayals of black women’s lived experiences, ambitions, and narratives.

Thus, Kiera Wilmot’s arrest and expulsion is a national travesty.  It is an indictment on not only the inveterate racism and sexism of American public education, but on an image industry that still loves to see black women doing mammy, Jezebel, and welfare queen to white women’s heroic explorers.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars and Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.

[i] See Jeff Martin and Jeri Clausing, “Police Handcuff Georgia Kindergartner for Tantrum, Huffington Post, April 17, 2012, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/17/police-handcuff-ga-kinder_n_1430749.html).  (Accessed January 31, 2013).

[ii] See Daniel J. Losen and Russell J. Skiba, “Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010, p. 8.  “If we assume that Black and Hispanic poverty rates are similar in these districts (as they are nationally) and if we assume that Black males and females have similar exposure to poverty it becomes difficult to explain why suspension rates are so much higher for Black males than for both Hispanic males and Black females.” Losen and Skiba cite previous research that has not identified a link between socioeconomic background or poverty and high rates of suspension (e.g., Skiba, 2002, Wallace 2009, APA 2008).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid. pp. 3-6.  Losen and Skiba report that there has been a 9 point increase in black suspensions from 1973 to the present, such that “Blacks are now more than three times more likely to be suspended than whites.”  Based on data from 18 districts nationwide they also concluded that white females were the least likely to be suspended and black males the most likely out of all racial and ethnic groups. See also, Russell J. Skiba, et al. “The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment,” Indiana Education Policy Center, Policy Research Report: SR1, June 2000, pp. 1-26.

[v] See also Losen and Skiba, p. 10.

  • littleeva

    The issue here is, too many times when a child of color misbehaves, they’re criminalized; while the white child gets a slap on the wrist and is told never to do it again. I went to high school in the 70′s and my teacher showed us how heroin is made, and guess what, no one got in trouble.

  • RCHOUDH

    I agree that the school over reacted in expelling her; some other disciplinary measure could have sufficed here. This case reminds me of other more recent cases of kids (who were alot younger) getting expelled/suspended for bringing in toy guns, threats they made to others, etc. Just a few days ago a white male teenager was in the news for glorifying terrorism. It seems like all these cases are cropping up alot more after the Sandy Hook murders. What I don’t get is how these needless overreactions will help prevent violence instead of effective gun control legislation.

    • Tusconian

      Part of it is overzealous “zero-tolerance” policies, and part of it is an unfortunate rush to demonize black children before they even have the chance to actually do something offensive. Recently a 5 year old was led off in handcuffs….for wearing the wrong color shoes to school.

      And the problem is, with the “zero-tolerance” policies, they’re actually applied quite selectively, and when applied, there’s no option for education. Many adults, especially parents and teachers, the adults who should know better than anyone else, just don’t seem to realize that children do not and can not think like adults. Not even teenagers, and certainly not preschoolers and elementary school kids. “I’m gonna kill you” is almost never an actual threat coming from a small kid, and the few times it is, the kid has no means to actually kill someone. Children don’t understand the severity of death and what it means for someone to be murdered. Children (even children raised with guns in the house, despite the delusions of their gun-happy parents) do not fully comprehend that putting a bullet in a person ends their life, robs them of the opportunity to experience fur, and takes away a person who is loved by others. They just know that they seem fun to shoot, and villains and heroes alike have them in movies, though they’re pretty much exclusively used to kill “bad guys” or people who “don’t count.” So when young kids are expelled from school for making an impotent threat or biting their pop tart into the shape of a gun, they probably have no idea what’s going on, because they’ve never had a talking to, a detention, or a time out for doing things that the school says is wrong. And when you compare that to my high school experience, where a classmate (in high school, so theoretically old enough to carry out a threat, and this was post-Columbine) was allowed to make hit lists and openly threaten people and go on about blowing up the school for 4 years, before being quietly given an exceedingly mild punishment 2 weeks before graduation, you know that this isn’t about bullying or safety. It’s about looking like the administration is doing something without actually having to try. It doesn’t teach a kid to express their anger appropriately or not to fool around with dangerous things, it teaches kids “one false step and your life is ruined, unless you’ve been pre-determined to never be punished ever.”

      Plus, people don’t seem to see that there are middle grounds when it comes to issues. There are options aside from “throwing out the rules” and “dragging every naughty child kicking and screaming into the back of a police car.” The rules exist for a reason. But when something that can be dealt with by the parents, the principal, or the teacher is treated as a public safety issue it gets ridiculous.

      • RCHOUDH

        Thanks you make a lot of great points about the ridiculousness of “zero tolerance” policies. It just feels like after Sandy Hook these policies have gone into overdrive.

  • RtRDH

    As a black man and as an educator, I learned after a while that doing “write ups”/referrals or even the act of threatening with referrals is an adequate way of disciplining students. In a highly racially segregated district, I have developed alternative ways of dealing with students. Thanks again for another essay connecting school discipline, with racism and the prison-industrial complex.

  • Kraas

    Expelling her is irrational and there is definitely a racial component here. I have seen comments on this story to the tune of “She could have easily looked up what would have happened, she deserves to get expelled.” To that I say it doesn’t matter. I certainly don’t know her intent, but from reading the articles, what I gather is that she is just a normal kid with no history of behavior problems, and no harm came from this experiment. As for people saying it was a deliberate prank, don’t you think she could have set it up in such a manner to at least break a window or something? This was not a prank. The only thing that should happen here is for the school to say, “Please don’t do that again.” And you know what? Making stuff blow up is FUN. Ever watch Myth Busters or The Periodic Table of Videos? I hope someone gets fired over this. “Stereotypes about dysfunctional violent black children ensure that the myth of white children’s relative innocence is preserved.” 100% true.

  • Jessica Isabel

    I’m an educator in the South Bronx and this plays out all over my school. This article has really made me reflect on how our instructional practices are impacted by the internalized racism we exhibit towards our students, and how we can be more mindful of how we are reacting to misbehavior.

  • Trillian

    Thank you, this needed to be said.
    -signed Afro American girl who loves astrophysics. ;)