Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris

Social justice advocate Monique W. Morris has written a phenomenal book, Pushout, which examines the criminalization of Black girls in public schools. According to the author, there are beliefs, policies, and actions that degrade Black girls’ educational experiences and ultimately marginalize them. This is the kind of book that expands thinking about the school-to-prison pipeline, especially the constraints placed on Black girls. Truth be told, I was a teacher in the early 2000s, and experienced some of the general challenges faced by female students of color; however, the racism endured by Black girls is inexcusable.

The pushout of education plaguing Black girls in America feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. Morris indicates three common denominators driving out these students: a purported “bad attitude” manifested by Black girls in the classroom; the widespread zero tolerance policy in schools; and the criminalization of Black girls as hypersexual. The dichotomy between a “good girl” who is quiet, submissive, and hardworking and one who is assertive, boisterous, and sexualized translates into the latter being viewed negatively. The lack of cultural competence in the classroom means that this latter cohort of students is labeled as problematic when many are only trying to voice their frustrations. Girls as young as pre-K are often suspended for purportedly bad behavior. Frankly, this is mind boggling. How and why are children as young as 4 or 5 years old deemed threatening?

Second, widespread use of a zero tolerance policy yields a high rate of pushout. Zero tolerance policy applies to everything from behavior issues to dress code violations and incomplete homework assignments. Morris interviewed numerous students who shared experiences of school pushout. A common experience was suspension or being sent home for dress code violations. Some were as mundane as wearing the wrong kind of shoes or forgetting to wear a belt, especially those students who attended schools with uniforms. I found myself becoming absolutely mystified by the extent to which young Black girls suffered from racially coded policies. It seemed to be a common theme to hear stories of these girls expressing frustrations when their white peers were not called out for similar behavior. It has become commonplace for schools to push out black girls under the aegis of “willful defiance” which included acting out, talking back, and lack of completion of assignments which Morris argues is a catchall for “misbehavior.”

Perhaps the most troubling factor contributing to student pushout is the sexual exploitation of minors, notably sex trafficking. The fact that girls are getting robbed of their education by no fault of their own is absolutely revolting. Morris notes the vulnerability of girls who are lured into the sex industry and the way in which pimps take advantage of that vulnerability. The ubiquity of pimps in cities such as Oakland, Chicago, and Houston enables grown men to prey on girls as young as 13 years old. Once they are sex trafficked into prostitution, education usually ends. When those fortunate girls are able to escape the sex industry, schools often do not know how to deal with their experiences being sex trafficked. While sex trafficking is an extreme, a more common form of pushout is the hypersexualization of Black girls. Schools often come down on Black girls for dress code violations when their white peers may flout those same policies with impunity.

Reading this book reminded me of the brief time spent teaching secondary and postsecondary students in the early 2000s. At that time, I was a road warrior: I taught at a public university 30 miles from my home and then drove about 45 miles to teach night classes to reentry students who were finishing their high school diplomas. The juxtaposition of these two student populations could not have been more extreme. As mentioned in other posts, the public university was one of the wealthiest and whitest higher education institutions in California. I taught ethnic studies courses to many a resistant student, who, fulfilling a graduation requirement, had little interest in reckoning with their white privilege. Then, I’d drive to teach high schoolers, approximately 95% of whom were Latinx. Many had histories in the carceral system, such as juvenile hall, drug court, or jail before coming back to school. Early on, it became clear that many of the students sought someone to listen to them and to engage them with relatable books and films. Engagement in the classroom increased exponentially with discussions of Gregory Nava’s Mi Famila or Gary Soto’s Buried Onions as ways into English curriculum. I made many home visits in the sleepy, economically distressed, coastal community and gained trust with students who had lost all trust and confidence in the educational system and watched students proudly walk across the stage during graduation.

All of this is not to suggest that this context mirrors exactly the situations Morris discussed with respect to Black girls; however, there were some parallels, especially the extent to which BIPOC students need to be educated in culturally competent classrooms. Morris identifies solutions to the problems of pushout including culturally competent classrooms, positive student-teacher relations that do not rely on trite stereotypes, and the reduction of law enforcement officers on school campuses. This is a transformative book that should be required reading for all educators.

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

By Monique W. Morris

304 pages. 2018.

Buy it here.