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Nov 19, 2019

Pushed out

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Black girls are being pushed out of school and into jails at alarming rates. But this issue often is overlooked because youth incarceration reform focuses so much on boys. Reporter Ko Bragg explains how the cycle begins and what researchers hope will break it.

Dig Deeper

Read: Ko Bragg’s story, Bound by Statute

Listen: Reveal’s related episode, Development arrested


This episode was produced by Priska Neely and edited by Jen Chien. Reported by Ko Bragg. The photo featured on this episode is an AP Photo by Damian Dovarganes.

Bragg’s work comes to us through Reveal’s Investigative Fellowship program. Special thanks to her editor, Andrew Donohue, plus Martin Reynolds. 

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda. Our host is Al Letson.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Found, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. A few weeks ago, this disturbing video started making the rounds online.


Speaker 2: Okay. I've had enough of this. Take your bag off. You're done.


Al Letson: In it, a white school police officer in New Mexico spends nearly five minutes violently taking down and subduing an 11 year old black girl.


Speaker 2: Put your hands behind your back!


Al Letson: Six weighed his alleged crimes, standing up on the bus, taking an extra milk from the cafeteria and brushing passed her principal in a doorway, which the officer characterize as an assault. Officer Zachary Christianson was placed on administrative leave and eventually resigned. The girl's family has initiated legal action. A lot of times when we hear about the school to prison pipeline, it has to do with boys. But the number of girls getting caught up in the system has been growing for the last few decades. And the black girls receive suspensions at six times the rate of white girls. Reporter [Ko] Bragg has been digging into this and joins me now. Hey, Ko.


Ko Bragg: Hey Al.


Al Letson: So tell me more about what you found.


Ko Bragg: So the research shows that adults like teachers, school resource officers, you know, we increasingly have cops in schools are criminalizing black girls for their behaviors in ways that are just not being applied to white girls.


Al Letson: And so how do these experiences with school discipline collide with the criminal justice system?


Ko Bragg: So basically what's happening is black girls are being pushed out of school and that's a term that comes from Dr. Monique Morris. She's a social justice scholar and she wrote a book called Push Out and a new documentary is out with that same title.


Speaker 4: So Push Out is not necessarily about the behaviors of young people, sort of in the way that we've come to understand it through the term Dropout, but ultimately about the systems that intersect to render our young people vulnerable to not completing their school and learning.


Ko Bragg: And it really gets into this concept that black girls are being deliberately pushed out of school through suspensions for the way they wear their hair or the way that they act in class. And they're getting pushed right into the juvenile detention system. It has to do with the way we see girls, and particularly black girls, as older. So we adultified them.


Speaker 4: I've called it an age compression, which just basically means that what we're doing in this society is taking away the girlhood of black children in adolescence, that we are assigning them a more adult-like identity by expecting them to be little women as opposed to girls. We then treat them as older.


Ko Bragg: Okay, so you shouldn't be speaking back to me. You know better than that, so I'm going to punish you as such. And so those suspensions, those expulsions, are then now heightened to calling in police to having school resource officers remove young girls from class.


Speaker 4: We saw a recent scenario in Orlando where a girl was arrested,


Speaker 5: The first grader was handcuffed, finger printed, even had a mugshot taken.


Speaker 4: But that was not the first and only case where we've seen very young girls having a tantrum in class, and the response is to engage law enforcement.


Al Letson: So the case of the six year old in Orlando is infuriating, but it got national attention. I mean, I'm in California, and I heard about what was happening in Orlando and that officer got reprimanded. I'm curious about the cases that happen every day and we don't talk about them.


Ko Bragg: Yeah, so there's a lot of missing contexts in those stories and that there are many, many other black girls who feel like that every day. Other children are allowed to be kids. They're allowed to throw tantrums and act up in school, but because of the weight that we put on black children and specifically black girls, that is bleeding over into the way that we punish them. On top of that, like we know from research that black girls are going through puberty much earlier and that kind of also gets weaponized.


Speaker 4: They walk in with a tank top and they're immediately seen as being sexually provocative. There's a differential enforcement of dress codes that makes black girls particularly vulnerable to being told to leave school.


Ko Bragg: And so part of Dr. Monique Morris's research is that she's helping create these spaces where girls who've been arrested or put in the juvenile detention system or expelled from school can transition back and they can reenter society, they can find an inkling of their girlhood again.


Al Letson: As a father of a young girl, this is a very confusing time for everybody. You throw in the fact that you're in a system that looks at little black girls as they are supposed to be older and act older and then it ends up turning into a criminal situation with overzealous school resource officers or even teachers. Then you really have a recipe for some bad things happening.


Ko Bragg: Yeah, and so then that's where this concept of push out comes into play. It's not just that you're getting in trouble, it's that you're being told that you don't belong in school. I mean I think about like when I was in grade school, just the small ways that like my white teachers would kind of single me out for like wearing beads in my hair and making too much noise. That's something that gets you kicked out of class. And so when you're in a place where you're seeing that other students aren't getting spoken to the same way, they're not being punished. Kids pick up on that and sometimes it's just like, "I'm going to make the decision not to go back to that place."


Al Letson: You know, I think the older you get it's easy to forget how your words or the way you treat a child can really imprint on them and they can just take on those words and those actions as their own.


Ko Bragg: Yeah, and I we do this thing as adults like life jades us and so we forget how important the role of a teacher is. Like you want your teacher to like you and give you good grades and give you great feedback and so when you have the exact opposite happening, like, "This teacher doesn't care about me so who cares about me?" That's devastating.


Jyoti Nanda: Particularly around for black girls. You see teachers actually admitting on record that they didn't expect much from those girls.


Ko Bragg: This is Jyoti Nanda and she's a criminal law professor at Golden Gate University and she's one of the few researchers that actually focuses on girls in the justice system.


Jyoti Nanda: They don't expect black girls to perform at high rates. So when they see them not performing, they treat them the same as other girls because they don't expect better. Where you see the data shows that particularly for non girls of color, there is higher expectations.


Al Letson: So how do these misconceptions play out when it comes to sentencing and the treatment of girls in the criminal justice system?


Ko Bragg: So what's happening is this pipeline continues and adults are putting black girls into the criminal justice system more frequently and for really minor things. And there's not a lot of research on these disparities and that's in part because we focus so much on boys in the system. But Jyoti Nanda really focuses on girls and specifically the decisions that adults are making that can change the course of a girl's life.


Jyoti Nanda: There's discretion on the part of the teacher who refers the child, you know, whether she refers to a child's psychologist or to the principal's office. The principal has a decision about whether to call the police officer or whether, again, to send the child to services. Then you have the police officer who has a decision to file a case or to send the kid to services. So by the time the girl lands in the system, there are many adults who have had opportunities to offer services to this child and nobody has offered the child services.


Ko Bragg: Black girls are getting into the justice system at much higher rates than other girls. And so once they're there, they are subject to more time in juvie, more punishment.


Al Letson: So in the face of these statistics and this link between push out and juvenile justice, what needs to change?


Ko Bragg: So the adults in the room have to change. The duty is for the adults to see children as children and to look at the myriad of options before them. "Do I need to charge this child? Does this child need actual medical attention? Do they need counseling?" A lot of girls enter the system with preexisting trauma that has not been worked out. And that's true of people of all ages. And something that Jyoti Nanda raises is whether or not we should be punishing girls, punishing children, in this way by incarcerating them in the first place.


Jyoti Nanda: You know, I would love to get to a place where I'll say, "I used to study this system called the juvenile justice system. We don't have that system anymore." I could take every school in the country that has a school resource officer and replace that with a mental health professional. That would be my first fix. My second fix would be to invite community members and girls are been system involved to the table when we're creating this program.


Ko Bragg: Who better to shape the system than kids who know it best, who live it, who might have been pushed out? You have to bring children to the table and you have to honor all parts of their identity in shaping the schools, the curriculum, these systems that they live in and these systems that sometimes result in their punishment.


Al Letson: Ko Bragg my investigative friend in Mississippi. Thanks so much for coming in.


Ko Bragg: Thanks Al.


Al Letson: [Prisca] [Neeley] produced today's episode. Jen [Sheehan] was the editor. Ko Bragg's work comes to us through reveals investigative fellowship program. Our production manager is [Mawendi Inahosa 00:09:36] Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo. Jay breezy. Mr Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, [Yo Aruda 00:09:44] . They had help this week from the Jeeva meanie and Amy Mustafa, our CEOs, Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief, our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comarado Lightning. Support for reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford foundation, the Heising Simons foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism foundation. Reveal is a co production of the center for investigative reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.