For many years, heightened attention has been placed on the discipline disparities between Black and white boys; however, educators have often failed to focus on the disproportionate discipline of Black girls (Gibson & Decker, 2019). Suspension rates of Black female students are increasing faster than any other student group (Losen & Skiba, 2010), and although Black girls represented only 7% of student enrollment in 2017–18, they accounted for 11% of in-school suspensions and 13% of out-of-school suspensions in public schools (U.S. Dept. of Educ., 2021).
This article intends to help administrators 1) recognize how Black female students are being treated differently, 2) identify schools’ legal obligations related to sex and race, and 3) take proactive steps to address disproportionate discipline and discrimination.
Disproportionate Discipline, Implicit Biases, and Intersectionality
When discipline data was analyzed for all female racial groups, Black girls were the only group who received exclusionary discipline at a disproportionate rate (U.S. Dept. of Educ., 2021). They were also three times more likely to receive referrals to law enforcement compared with white girls (Green et al., 2020). Morris (2016) warns, “[t]oo many Black girls are being criminalized by beliefs, policies, and actions that degrade and marginalize both their learning and their humanity, leading to conditions that push them out of schools … .” (p. 8).
To prevent the disproportionate discipline of Black female students, research suggests it is imperative to examine implicit biases that lead to harmful stereotyping. For example, cultural biases have sometimes led to the stereotyping of Black girls as “loud” and “combative” (Morris, 2007).
It is also useful to understand how Black girls must grapple with intersectional identities. “Intersectionality” describes the lived realities of those with multiple identities, such as how racial identity interacts with other identities like gender, socioeconomic status, or disability (Crenshaw, 1991).
It is problematic to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive, as that distorts Black girls’ multidimensional experiences. If Black girls feel compelled to pick only one identity, they may not feel fully understood, which may negatively impact their self-esteem and sense of belonging in schools.
School leaders have both an ethical and legal responsibility to address the unique inequities Black girls face. They must protect Black female students by complying with federal laws prohibiting racial and sex-based discrimination.
First, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits racial discrimination in public schools. A school can be liable under Title VI even if there is no evidence of intentional discrimination. To establish a claim based on disparate treatment, students need only to prove that they 1) are a member of a protected class, 2) suffered an adverse action, and 3) were treated less favorably than similarly situated students (Silva v. St. Anne Catholic Sch., 2009).
Students could also file lawsuits based on a hostile environment and would need to prove that 1) they are a member of a protected class; 2) the harassment was based on race, color, or national origin; 3) school officials had actual knowledge of, and were deliberately indifferent to, the harassment; and 4) the harassment was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it deprived the student access to educational benefits.
Black girls are also protected by Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits federally funded schools from discriminating, excluding, or denying education benefits due to sex. The standard that courts use to assess whether schools have violated Title IX originated from a case involving a Black female student. In Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Education (1999), the mother of a fifth-grade Black girl reported that her daughter had repeatedly been subject to sexual harassment by a male classmate. Despite notifying several teachers and the principal, the school personnel only threatened to punish the male classmate. The U.S. Supreme Court determined the school’s response was inadequate and created a new standard. A school district is liable for student-to-student, sex-based harassment when personnel are deliberately indifferent to known acts of severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive harassment that bars the victim’s access to educational benefit or opportunity.
Although courts have clarified when districts are liable for racial and sex-based discrimination, some school leaders continue to fail to protect Black girls. For example, in 2021, a Wisconsin school district settled a Title VI and Title IX lawsuit brought by a Black female student by paying her $862,500 (Fox, 2021). The student, Dasia Banks, explained that her classmates began teasing her about her skin color and hair in first grade. During her years in the district, she repeatedly heard racial slurs. Classmates flew Confederate flags from their cars and made Nazi salutes. Banks said Black History Month was especially difficult because she felt as though she was under a microscope. Her grades dropped, and she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Despite Banks’ repeated complaints to administrators, she felt they failed to address the hostile environment adequately.
To avoid similar situations, school leaders should recognize that simply applying Title VI and Title IX in isolation may not fully meet the needs of Black girls. Focusing merely on legal compliance without attempting to understand the unique experiences of Black girls is inadequate. Instead, administrators should identify what they can do from both a legal and ethical standpoint.
School leaders should consider the following recommendations to meet their ethical and legal obligations and to prevent disproportionate discipline:
- Be intentional about building relationships with Black girls and ensure other adults in your school are also fostering positive relationships with them. Seek input from Black female students to identify what may be needed. For example, some schools establish affinity groups to foster a sense of belonging for Black female students.
- Notify students, families, and staff about how to report discrimination. Then promptly and thoroughly investigate and respond to complaints.
- Examine the racial composition of your staff and analyze whether it is representative of your student body.
- Analyze student data to identify disproportionality issues that may exist in discipline referrals and participation in special education and gifted education programs.
- Review school policies and procedures with an emphasis on how they are being implemented. Be mindful of how Black girls may be impacted and critically analyze whether some staff are disciplining students differently for the same offense (e.g., dress code violations).
- Ensure your district has a policy prohibiting racial and sex-based discrimination and that your staff members are effectively educated about Title VI and Title IX.
Janet R. Decker, JD, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Education at Indiana University and dissertation chair of Gibson’s study about Black girls’ perceptions of school leader support. Tajharjha Gibson is an assistant principal of Tri-North Middle School in Bloomington, IN, and a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at Indiana University.
Crenshaw, K. W. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–99.
Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629 (1999).
Fox, M. (2021, Sept. 4). After years of racist slurs and treatment, former Baraboo student says ‘a weight was lifted’ after settlement reached: Lawsuit described a pattern of racial slurs, harassment, sexual assault. Wisconsin Public Radio. wpr.org/after-years-racist-slurs-and-treatment-former-baraboo-student-says-weight-was-lifted-after
Gibson, T., & Decker, J. (2019). Failure to focus on the discipline of Black girls: Encouraging school leaders to initiate conversations. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 22(4), 80-98. doi.org/10.1177/1555458919869760
Green, E., Walker, M., & Shapiro, E. (2020, Oct. 1). A battle for the souls of Black girls. The New York Times. nytimes.com/2020/10/01/us/politics/black-girls-school-discipline.html
Losen, D. J., & Skiba, R. (2010). Suspended education: Urban middle schools in crisis. Southern Poverty Law Center. splcenter.org/sites/default/files/Suspended_Education.pdf
Morris, E. W. (2007). “Ladies” or “loudies”?: Perceptions and experiences of Black girls in classrooms. Youth & Society, 38(4), 490-515. psycnet.apa.org/record/2007-08147-00
Morris, M. W. (2016). Pushout: The criminalization of Black girls in schools. The New Press.
Silva v. St. Anne Catholic Sch., 595 F. Supp. 2d 1171 (D. Kan. 2009).
U.S. Department of Education. (2021, June). Civil rights data collection, 2017–18 State and National Estimations. Office for Civil Rights. ocrdata.ed.gov/estimations/2017-2018