Oseye Boyd

We are failing our girls. 

That’s pretty much the message of  “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” airing at 9 p.m. March 26 on WFYI. I was able to get an advanced look at the documentary, and it’s heartbreaking. 

It opens with various scenes of adults abusing Black girls. In one scene it looks like a teacher is pulling a girl by her braid. A 5-year-old sits in handcuffs in another. 

Although the documentary focuses on the role of school, I say we are failing our students because we allow this to happen. We are complicit in the abuse our girls face because we often view our girls through the same negative lens. You probably don’t view your daughter this way, but you view so-and-so’s daughter this way. Not my daughter but that other girl. It’s OK when that girl gets into trouble. She deserved it. 

We don’t take the time to actually understand what’s going on with that girl and find out why she’s behaving as she does. Could it be trauma she masks with certain behaviors? Or,  maybe her behavior is misinterpreted. If we don’t take the time to look at our girls differently, how can those tasked with the job of educating them — especially when they come from a different cultural background — do so?

According to “Pushout,” there are four million teachers in the United States, and only 7% are African American. Black girls comprise 16% of the public school students. This disparity leads to a variety of problems between middle class white and often female teachers and Black girls. Consider these statistics about high school:

• Black female students are four times more likely to be arrested than their white female counterparts.

• Black girls are three times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than white girls.

• Black girls are the only group over-represented in all disciplinary categories — expulsions, suspensions, arrests, corporal punishment, referrals to law enforcement and restraint.

Also consider, the suicide rate for African American girls and boys under age 13 is about twice as high compared to white children of the same age.

We spend a lot of time focusing on the school to prison pipeline for Black boys, and rightfully so, but how much attention are we giving to our girls? It doesn’t have to be an either or mindset. We need to let our boys and girls know they are equally important and quit perpetuating this belief that males are more valuable than girls simply because of genitalia. We could stop this silly battle of the sexes before it even starts. 

The lack of attention to the plight of our girls shows how invisible our girls are. Oh, they’re visible when it comes to punishment, but not so much when it comes to showing them compassion, affection and empathy. 

The documentary shares the story of Samaya, who after being disciplined by a teacher was left in the hallway. Seven years old at the time, she left school for two hours and walked along streets and highways. Samaya walked into a Walmart and was told she had to stay outside since she wasn’t with an adult. She then went to a restaurant to ask for a cup of water and only then was someone concerned enough to call the police. The police asked her age, and the caller said she was 12 — a full five years older than she was. (Black girls are often viewed and treated as older than they are. It’s a weird dynamic that confuses girls and removes the blame of their maltreatment from the adults.) The police dispatcher said since she didn’t seem upset it was OK for her to be alone.

The teacher bullied Samaya continuously. As she walked along a highway, Samaya contemplated suicide, thinking heaven would be better since no one wanted her. Up until this point, Samaya’s parents, trying to be good ones, trusted the teacher and took her side.

How many Samayas are out there? If she hadn’t gone missing for two hours, would her parents have ever caught the downward spiral in her behavior and made the connection, or would they have blamed Samaya and sealed her fate as a discipline problem?

It’s a critical time for our girls. We can’t let someone else decide the fate of our daughters. They don’t have all of the information or understand our historical and present-day trauma. Labels such as a sassy, loud, ghetto, smart aleck and ratchet reinforce negative gender and racist stereotypes. We don’t need patronizing professional development that reinforces the idea of the great white hope, either. We are failing our daughters if we continue to let culturally uneducated, racially insensitive teachers teach our girls. 

Samaya’s story ends well. So do the stories of other girls in the documentary. 

We can change this. We can mend the broken heart.

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