Monique W. Morris: Lives And Experiences Of African American Girls

An Interview with an author and social justice scholar, Monique W. Morris, on shocking statistics covered in her book about the criminalization of Black girls in American schools.

Statistics have shown that 38% of Black girls fail to graduate on time, if at all. According to a separate research, one out of every ten Black girls is suspended from school. Although boys make up about two-thirds of suspensions, African American girls are more likely to be suspended than all other girls, White Boys, Hispanic boys, and Asian boys. Why such an alarming rate?

Monique W. Morris, a social justice scholar who extensively covers juvenile justice relating specifically to Black girls uncovered that this is partly due to the criminalization of Black girls in schools. Her book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, is an extensive work containing over 2 decades’ research on the topic. Today she discloses to us what she thinks is the cause of the trend, her take on the discriminatory treatment of Black girls is schools and what she thinks can be done as a country, in our communities and as parents to curb this unacceptable trend.
Hi Monique, we’re glad to have you here with us today. First of all, could you introduce yourself to our readers?
Monique W. Morris
I co-founded the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and we do work in 3 primary areas, the first looking at increasing the capacity of organizations that are working to reduce violence against women and girls in Black communities. We have a body of work that has been looking at reducing the barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated women, and we have a substantial body of work around interrupting school-to-confinement pathways. My latest book Pushout is on the criminalization of Black girls in schools and that work really specifically is seeking to uplift the narrative of girls who’ve been most impacted by school pushouts, who have not completed school, not necessarily because they just woke up one day and decided they didn’t want to go to school but rather, there are structures, systems and actions around them that have in many ways forced them out of school. And so we do a body of work to repair the relationship between girls, who are disproportionately Black girls, and the schools and other learning institutions in their lives. Outside of that, I’ve spent decades looking at race, gender and justice issues and have experienced work in the non-profit sector, in the academy and in the field of civil rights.
In your book Pushout, you cover the criminalization of Black girls in schools very deeply. Is it something you studied as an independent researcher or did you do this research with some institution?
Monique W. Morris
I’ve spent more than 20 years looking at the experiences of girls particularly Black girls, so the answer to your question is really both. Some of this work grew out of my formal doctoral research with Fielding Graduate University and some of this work was really done as an independent researcher. Some of this work was also done in partnership over time, with various other scholars who have been looking at this question of how school and learning spaces are having an undesired consequence and impact on Black girls particularly with respect to those who have experienced exclusionary discipline like suspensions, expulsions, as well as those who have been referred to the juvenile legal system and criminal legal systems.
Reading stories on your blog and your interviews, it seems that the education system is really persecuting Black girls. Could you please describe a few theses that you talk about in The Criminalization of Black girls?
Monique W. Morris
I think educators go into the field of education because they intend to do well. They believe in the power of education for all children, but I also believe that educators and schools as institutions are impacted by the other learnings about race and gender that inform how we interact with individuals and how we respond to the specific needs of Black girls. So many Black girls, and I don’t know if it’s an intentional persecution, as much as I believe that Black girls are being harmed by a series of policies and decisions that were constructed without them even really being considered in the first place. And so many of the ways in which we have as a society responded to ideas of facilitating safety in schools don’t have necessarily the impact that I think was originally intended for Black girls. For example, many of the zero tolerance policies that were set in place to facilitate a culture of safety in schools by removing children if they brought weapons or drugs to school, have been used to respond to other forms of student behavior that don’t involve weapons or drugs. Girls who exhibit a so-called attitude or who are seen as defiant, these are so-called offenses that lead a disproportionate number of Black girls to being cast away from school. There are other ideas about dress code, other ways in which Black girls’ performance is facilitating a marginalization from schools where there’s a lower set of expectations for them, something that is called permission to fail that I’ve listed in the book that uniquely impacts Black girls and sends them the message that they don’t belong or are not wanted in schools. There’s also the prevalence of sexual victimization in the lives of Black girls that goes underreported and under-examined and is certainly not responded to with a great degree of rigor that can make schools unsafe for them, where girls describe being assaulted on campus and in schools but that is not responded to with any degree of rigor, is sort of seen as commonplace or not addressed at all. And so much of what I talked about in the schools, I locate these conversations about criminalization in schools because I wanted to really step back and think beyond the scope of mass incarcerations or really talking about prisons when we’re talking about the type of penal or counsel institutions that our young people end up in, but to really think about the places where we have not necessarily centered on conversations about this practice of criminalizing young people’s behaviors in a way that will hopefully lead us to some solution building around how we can really interrupt cycles of participation in underground economies and contact with the juvenile and criminal legal systems.
What is being done now to prevent girls from going through these hardships and ease the pressure on them in schools?
Monique W. Morris
I think the first thing we are trying to do is really begin to have a national conversation about girls in schools. For so long we didn’t talk about girls. There really wasn’t a prioritization of their narratives, expressions and their stories, so part of what I see happening across the country is an intentional engagement around the specific needs of girls and some very baseline questioning happening and developing in different districts and jurisdictions around their specific needs and the community of concerned adults that might be brought into a conversation about girls. In those places where there has been a degree of readiness established unto the development of collaborative initiatives to respond to the needs of girls, co-constructed practices were happening with the Young Women’s Initiative in New York for example, that brought together various cis- and transgender girls along with the community of concerned adult scholars, activists, non-profit leaders, corporate leaders to come together to construct a series of recommendations and planning events around the needs of girls in schools and beyond. I see the development of collaborative happening in places like Oakland, California, where there is a new initiative that will be established that’s looking at the academic achievements of Black girls and young women, and I see that there’s an emergence really in various jurisdictions of the juvenile and criminal legal systems’ stakeholders coming together to really try to have some intentional conversations with educators about what might be done differently. Individually, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done where girls are still operating in structures that are dominant in their lives and that are in many ways facilitating the oppressions that they live with daily. And so it’s important for us to have the ongoing conversations about how we can begin to co-construct safety so that we’re developing the healing informed responses to problematic student behavior and the development of classrooms that are both colored-interior, development ready as well as those which are absent of bias and discrimination. And so I think there’s definitely a full continuum developing but it’s in the very early stages in my opinion.
And how do Black communities help in building dialogue with the police and with teachers?
Monique W. Morris
Well, I think we’re coming here in the Bay Area off of a series of summer strategy sessions around this question of pushout for Black girls and other girls of color. And so one of the things that I think is important to happen and that I’ve learned from that process is that we need to intentionally create spaces where we can have conversations with communities about community participation and recognition of this as a problem. We haven’t really seen that in many spaces so the development of spaces where community members, parents, stakeholders, teachers, etc., can come together and elevate questions about practices in schools, about identities as they play out in the lives of Black girls is all really important. The community also needs to play a much larger role in recognizing and responding to the trauma that is impacting the lives and wellbeing of Black girls specifically around sexual assault and victimization which is such a prominent issue among girls who are most at risk of school pushout as well as really developing concrete ways to uplift the narratives of girls who have been disproportionately harmed by decision making around school discipline. There hasn’t been a lot of capacity built but I think that there’s definitely an opportunity in various communities to start conversations about these issues in a meaningful way.
You do a very important job in trying to improve the environment in which girls are raised. How do you feel with current protests and Black movements? Do you support them?
Monique W. Morris
I think protest is a part of our civic engagement and protests have always been a part of the Black freedom movement. I also believe that there’s a lot of work to be done with systems and structures. I think that everyone has a role to play and while there are folks who are out in the street, there also needs to be folks who are thinking about alternatives and who are working to develop structures and responses that can advance our conversation and our walk towards freedom and liberation. Ultimately, to me education is freedom work, and so when we’re talking about developing new structures and pathways for young people along the gender continuum, male, female or however individuals are identifying along that continuum, we’re talking about really constructing pathways to education and away from criminalization. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is build a path towards freedom and it’s that freedom work that really is at the center of what all of us are trying to do, those of us who protest quietly and those of us who protest loudly. I also think that it’s important for folks to lend whatever talents they have to the freedom movement. And so I see a greater degree of scholarships for example, being developed in these academies that have been historically hostile to research that centers Black girls. Now there’s a full initiative where many scholars, many of them Black women, are centering Black girls and trying to really push our thinking on how we want to engage around the development around pedagogy, new curriculum, the development of new opportunities for our girls.
Do you think that educational institutions and the justice system should change their attitude towards Black girls?
Monique W. Morris
Yeah. I think that education institutions certainly need to change their attitudes towards Black girls and I think that we’ve got a lot of work to do to repair the relationship between Black girls and these educational institutions. Education is a critical protective factor against contact with the juvenile and criminal legal system. And we know this, so we’ve got to do everything possible to keep girls in schools and to keep them focused on their educational attainment. The justice system as we’ve come to understand it, as a collection of the juvenile legal system and the criminal legal system together really represent something that I openly say I’m trying to keep girls from ever touching. And so while I do believe that this is about changing how those systems interact with our girls, I’m also very clear that this is very much about keeping our girls out of that system altogether.
And what about the police? How do you think they should also change their attitudes towards Black girls?
Monique W. Morris
The police don’t receive much training or guidance around how to engage with Black girls or any girl of color. And I have a project with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality now that’s exploring how school resource officers are interacting with and trained to engage girls of color. So I think in general, it runs a gambit depending on who is the officer in question. The structure of law enforcement in this country is one of a high degree of discretion. Which means they have the ability to make decisions on the spot that can impact an entire trajectory of one’s experience and life’s outcome, right? So it’s really important to have conversations to the extent that these officers are still in schools and engaging with girls even out the community about how they are understanding manifestations of Black identity, Black femininity and expressions that are a part of that tradition and how they are reducing their interactions, not increasing their interactions with communities that are not engaging in criminal behavior. There’s a lot of work to be done and I think in many ways, my personal feeling about law enforcement in general is that there should be a truth and reconciliation process in place to honor and explore the harm historically that’s been committed. And in our contemporary kinds as well as we think about how we’re going to co-construct safety not implement safety and how we’re going to really begin to think about ways of engaging our full community in the development of alternatives to arrest, probation, contact with the juvenile and legal systems in ways that can be extraordinarily harmful in the life of a person.
What institutions in your opinion should initiate this process of change? The White House, Congress?
Monique W. Morris
Well, the White House Council on Women and Girls has been doing a fair amount of good work in partnership with many organizations including my own to begin to explore some of these questions about how girls are uniquely impacted particularly girls of color and Black girls specifically. I think in many ways there are independent bodies that need to be a part of this process. Ultimately, the federal government certainly has a role to play in constructing a truth and reconciliation process and there have been other government, state agencies that have taken the lead in other countries around this question. But I also think this needs to be a participatory process in this country in particular where there has been so much harm committed by various institutions against people of African descent, and in our development of really new theories and new understandings about how we’re going to move forward and co-construct safety. As I often say, really I think it depends on how we can pull together a special commission and a special community of impactive people, scholars, advocates, etc., and law enforcement to really begin to rethink how we think about and how we engage in facilitating safety in our communities. I believe in participatory processes and so that’s what you’ll hear from me. These are participatory processes that really are about having hard conversations, also about looking at policies and practices in a meaningful way so that we can really construct new narratives and new outcomes for our communities.
Personally, did you face any of these pressures and challenges when you studied at school?
Monique W. Morris
There are some that I faced and some that I did not. I was a high performing student and I went to a high performing school that set forth expectations from me that I didn’t see necessarily reflected in the many of the educational stories that were shared in the book. Also I went to school during a time when there were no zero tolerance policies. And so I was not directly impacted by that kind of criminalizing mentality which is partially why I can imagine schools that don’t have law enforcement in them. I can imagine safe places for learning that don’t involve having systems and structures of surveillance as a part of the process. When I talk to girls today about if they can even imagine a school without police in it, many girls say no, they cannot imagine a school without police. And so I think it’s important to recognize that while I’m uplifting the narratives of girls who have been pushed out of schools and who have dealt with extreme forms of trauma and victimization, that there are alternatives because many of us have lived those alternatives. Like the girls in the book that I wrote about, I am a survivor of sexual assault and understand the role that it can play in really having negative life outcomes and facilitating behaviors that are really coping mechanisms to that trauma and yet are not seen as such. I have been on the receiving end of differential enforcement of dress code policies. I understand all of that deeply, and I was once a Black girl, so of course I walked this life with the unknowing gaze of strangers who misconstrued my identity and my volume and my ability to speak up and speak out and considered it to be back talk or defiance or anger. And so I think in many ways I may be much more receptive to the narrative of the girls who were eager for someone to take their stories and document them in a way that could hopefully press public conversation about what’s been going on in their lives and how it negatively impacts their ability to complete school.
Finally, what do you think parents of Black girls can do to teach their kids and their teenage girls so they can avoid these special attitudes towards them in schools?
Monique W. Morris
I think parents play a very big role first in establishing a relationship with their daughters that is constructive and that is open in communication so that when their daughters or their loved ones feel that they have been treated in a way that’s problematic for them, that they feel that they do have an advocate at home that they can come to and talk to about these issues. Parents are also critical for really establishing a set of norms and understandings with the school about the kind of learning space they expect to have for their child. Too often what happens is that if a girl gets in trouble, that’s the first time the school sees the parents and the parent is angry and combative instead of really working to establish a relationship with educators so that when there’s an early sign, warning sign, any questions that might need to be asked, they can establish that relationship early on and move forward. I include in the back of the book a series of common questions that I get from parents and community members about how parents can encourage their daughters to stay in school, or how they can support the daughters’ wellbeing at home, and so I think there are a lot of things that parents can do to establish routines, to enter conversations, to start conversations and to build trust with their daughters or the Black girl in their life so that they can be one of the most powerful advocates for this child when they are needed in those spaces.






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