Punishment is as much a part of Black girls’ educational experiences as academics, hurting their chances for success and perpetuating the achievement gap.
I was completely entranced by my Junie B. Jones book when I faintly heard the sounds of heels hitting the linoleum floor. I kept my eyes glued to my book, thinking the teacher, whoever she was, would pass. Soon, the clicking stopped, and she was standing before me. I looked up and realized it was not a teacher but a dean. She told me my headband —my favorite one— was “violent,” “inappropriate,” and against the dress code.
The dean instructed me to remove it, so I did. The following weeks I saw the same dean pass girls, many of them white, wearing the same headband I once wore; she never confronted them, never made them feel small, as their headbands covered their straight blonde hair.
Thinking perhaps the rules had changed, I returned to school with my headband placed proudly on my head. Almost immediately, the same dean approached me and asked why I was wearing this forbidden item. As I began explaining myself, she interjected and said I was a “very disrespectful young woman.” But she was wrong on both accounts: I was not disrespectful, and I was not a young woman, not even a teenager. I was an 8-year-old little girl. Unfortunately, the incident was not an isolated one at my predominately white school in Minnesota, where my Blackness was amplified but rarely celebrated. Still, it was perhaps my greatest lesson in the “adultification” of Black girls, an issue that plagues our nation’s schools.
Adultification bias strips Black children of their innocence, as they are believed to be mature, adult-like even. The bias also “speaks to the dehumanization [of] Black children,” said Jessica Black, whose daughter was suspended 23 times in one year. Black girls stand at the intersection of racism and sexism. The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality confirmed the phenomenon through their 2017 study of 300 parents. Researchers found that participants believed Black girls, particularly those aged 5 to 14, were less innocent than their white peers. Due to perceptions that are steeped in anti-Blackness, Black girls are disproportionately disciplined, leading to the “discipline gap” found between Black and white girls.
In “The Achievement Gap and the Discipline Gap: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” Anne Gregory and her coauthors coined the term “discipline gap” to highlight these stark disparities. Their study proposes that students’ removal from the classroom may perpetuate the achievement gap, for it is students of color who are removed most frequently. Similarly, Chris Curran from the University of Florida Gainesville reported that ten percent of the discipline gap was a result of zero-tolerance policies. Curran argues these mandates have a history of punishing Black students more severely than their white counterparts due to teachers’ biases —a pattern also found in Connecticut.
According to the 2017 report on “Suspensions and Expulsions in Connecticut,” Black students received in-school suspensions at higher rates than white students. Specifically, Black girls were five times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white female peers across all districts. Unsurprisingly, researchers found that 40 percent of suspended Black students were chronically absent and “[were] less likely to read on grade level and more likely to drop out.”
Instead of acknowledging adultification as a systemic issue, some may argue that Black girls, and perhaps their parents, are to blame for the frequency with which they are punished. They may argue that it is not fair to condemn teachers and the education system at large for their behavior. In response, I ask them to interrogate their refusal to acknowledge a system that benefits from the punishment of Black girls, a society that welcomes the supposed missteps of these individuals. I ask them to examine their anti-Blackness and think critically about the implications of such an assertion.
The adultification of Black girls is a manifestation of anti-Blackness and stereotyping, a problem engrained so wholly in America that it has found its way into our nation’s schools. Consequently, it is incumbent we address adultification bias through a combination of techniques. Although easier said than done, we must change the way people think. Teachers must receive cultural sensitivity training in their teacher preparation programs and during professional development. School administrators must examine their school suspension and expulsion rates through a non-color-blind lens. Further, students must be required to learn America’s true history, one that includes the voices of the marginalized, to combat these negative stereotypes at a young age. Failure to do so ultimately perpetuates the achievement gap and calls into question whether education is truly the great equalizer some believe it to be.
Ayanna Platt is a senior at Trinity College, double majoring in Educational Studies and English.