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Ayanna Pressley Reintroduces Bill To Address Disproportionate Punishment Of Black Girls In Schools

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

Black girls are suspended six times more than white girls in schools across the U.S., according to 2018 government data.

A new report from the National Women’s Law Center finds they are disciplined more harshly than their white peers for things like dress code violations and hairstyles.

Over policing leads to more suspensions and disruptions to education, increasing the “school-to-confinement pipeline,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley says. The Massachusetts Democrat is reintroducing a bill that seeks to end the disproportionate punishment of girls of color in schools.

The bill, known as Ending Punitive, Unfair, School-based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma Act or the Ending PUSHOUT Act, was first presented in 2019. In the current moment of racial reckoning and amid the pandemic, Pressley says it’s time to dismantle oppressive systems and replace them with trauma-informed ones, starting at the school level.

“Our schools have got to be places and spaces for learning and growth,” she says. “But for too many Black and Brown girls, interactions with racist dress code policies, hair policies [and] law enforcement in our schools has really defined their experience, and we haven’t seen these disparate punitive impacts wane during the pandemic.”

School policing of Black and Brown girls has worsened during the pandemic, Pressley says, even with online learning. The representative was inspired to reintroduce her bill after ProPublica reported on a 15-year-old Black girl in Michigan who was incarcerated for not completing her homework when her school switched to remote learning.

“Thankfully, we were ultimately able to see her released, but her story is part of a larger pattern of the criminalization of Black girls for minor misbehavior at school,” she says.

Pressley’s bill would provide schools with a myriad of resources that include mental health, counseling and care programs as preventative measures against pushout in schools. The bill also calls for data gathering under the Civil Rights Data Collection, strengthens the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and establishes a federal task force to address the school pushout crisis, she says.

The bill’s $2.5 billion in grant funding would go to schools that commit to ban unfair disciplinary policies, such as grooming violations. Dress codes are often foundational to school discipline policies — and Pressley wants to change that.

Racial disparities in dress codes are systemic, she says, pointing to a time in 2017 when two Black girls from Malden, Massachusetts, received suspensions for their hair extensions. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called on the school to drop the hairstyles ban, which she said illegally singled out students of color, WBUR reports.

After that incident happened, Pressley and social justice scholar Monique Morris, author of “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” gathered focus groups of 100 girls to talk about school policies that impact them.

“The overall drumbeat was the same — feelings of unworthiness, being stereotyped, experiences of being silenced and shamed,” she says. “Those stories became the foundation for my Ending PUSHOUT Act.”

Pressley and Morris also engaged educators on the topic and showed them evidence-based research on how school policies that appear to be gender and race neutral are anything but, Pressley says.

The criminalization of people of color often starts in school, when young Black and Brown folks are kids. Pressley says her bill will disrupt this traumatizing cycle of criminalization and adultification, which has resulted in accelerating the school to confinement pathway.

Pressley has been calling for replacing systems of harm — from gun reform to voting rights to mass incarceration — with policies that center humanity, justice and healing. She acknowledges one piece of legislation will not undo generations of trauma, but wants to use this inflection moment to focus on reconstruction.

“This is not a one-and-done situation. We have to undo centuries of hurt and harm that were legislated, that have been codified in statutes,” she says. “So this is going to take a multi-legislative approach, and it is going to take political will and courage.

Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.