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In the first of a two-part series, Khalilah Harris explores the disproportionate discipline Black girls face in Baltimore schools, and the steps being taken to eliminate the bridge between classrooms and prisons

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DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: As the new school year approaches, The Real News Network will continue to explore the intersections of equity, race, and access to opportunities for quality, safe, and supportive public school environments.

In early summer 2018, we attended a town hall event hosted in partnership with Not Without Black Women, the University of Maryland School of Law, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in advance of the release of the LDF’s new study Our Girls, Our Future.

CARA MCCLELLAN: Through our research, which was both statistical analysis- we collected information and data from the school district and the Department of Juvenile Services and from the Baltimore School Police Force- and then also through qualitative research, we spoke to young women who are in schools in Baltimore; we spoke to teachers, administrators, parents about how they were experiencing the school system. And then we wrote a report that found that there is a need for increased investment in the educational opportunities of black girls in Baltimore; that there is an overreliance on school police; and overreliance on exclusionary discipline. And by that I mean suspensions, expulsions, and different ways of pushing girls out of school at the point where they need to be pulled in.

MICHAEL PINARD: Students who are suspended and expelled are more likely to drop out. Now, if you’re more likely to drop out, if you drop out, you’re more likely to engage in the juvenile justice and criminal justice system.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: The two organizations held this discussion during Say Her Name Week 2018, a national week of action targeted at ending violence against all black women, girls, and femmes.

BRITTANY OLIVER: Not Without Black Women is supporting the release of this report because we are concerned with black women and girls in particular in Baltimore, and around the education system, especially after the 2015 Baltimore Uprising. Not Without Black Women is a social and political movement of women that advocates for the agency and autonomy of black women’s voices, bodies, and freedoms. And so what we’ve come to learn over the past couple of months is that investing in our youth is one of the, has become one of the most important issues in Baltimore City. And so our goal is to apply both a gender and sexual oppression lens to our work around how we reform or recreate education in Baltimore. And so that is going to be one of our main goals we’re working on for this year.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Authored by attorney Cara McClellan with data analysis from Dr. Megan Gall, the report shares both anecdotes and data related to the experiences of black girls in Baltimore city schools. In addition to school discipline pushing students towards incarceration, young women tend to get pushed to other forms of confinement, such as human trafficking, teen pregnancy, and homelessness, for very subjective reasons.

CARA MCCLELLAN: What we found was that over a quarter of the things that black girls are suspended and expelled for, focusing specifically on suspensions, though, has to do with defiance, disturbance, disrespect, and threatening behavior. These things that are subjective terms, and that get applied a lot more to the behavior of black girls, whereas when it may be the same behavior in their counterparts of other races don’t get those labels and don’t get that punishment.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: In recent years, more reporting on school pushout of black girls has been surfaced by advocates and scholars seeking to ensure those stories aren’t lost amidst the heavy emphasis on outcomes for boys.

VALARIE MATTHEWS: For us it creates a barrier, because there’s so many politics in the middle of the work that needs to be done. It’s too many people that are in positions that don’t need to be in positions that are making the work that we do very difficult.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: We reached out to Dr. Monique Morris, a premier scholar on the issue of school pushout of black girls, and the author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, who offered her position that safety in schools is co-constructed, which requires young women and girls to have agency in the process.

CARA MCCLELLAN: A thing one of the administrators I spoke with put very well was that he felt that girls need opportunities for self-expression, and that a lot of times the behaviors they’re being punished for are because they don’t have an outlet to express themselves, or just even an opportunity to be heard or listened to. And so one of the recommendations we had in terms of improving the school environment was to provide opportunities for black girls to have voice within school, to provide curriculums where black girls can see themselves and where creative thinking is developed. So to make sure that people of color, women, LBGTQ people are represented in the curriculum, to connect back to the experiences of girls and to help develop the critical thinking so that there can be that availability for social discussions in class instead of simply regurgitating information.

In terms of the improving the environment, we also talked about addressing trauma within schools so that when girls are acting out, and it’s because of social issues that they’re struggling with, that that is treated as what it is, as opposed to just simply misbehavior.

DR. SONJA SANTELISES: What’s interesting about the work with girls of color is I really have to credit our community partners, because when we took a look across the district, most of the more successful and robust programming is happening as a result of different community leaders or community citizens who are putting together groups of young girls and young women, actually, to come together. So even our teacher of the year this year, one of her biggest contributions is the establishment of her Queendom program, which is really around having a place for young girls of color, young black girls specifically, to be able to find out what makes them them; how to self-advocate; what it means to actually have aspirations beyond just what they might be experiencing now. We have a program called Gems, which one of our school police officers, who we’ve recognized many times for that work. And she did that out of her frontline work with young girls in the city.

So in, you know, one of the challenges we have is thinking through how do we scale up this high-quality work. But most of, I would say, the strongest work is occurring as a result of these efforts. Our work is the school district is really now saying how do we more strategically target those partnerships in the areas where we see the greatest need.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: The Real News Network will continue to follow this and other issues critical to the people of Baltimore. Please stay with us. If you like our style of independent, informative news, consider making a contribution to

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Khalilah M. Harris is a host and executive producer at the Real News Network focused on the Baltimore Bureau, education reporting, and social commentary. Khalilah brings a unique perspective to curating content from an extensive career working to expand access to opportunity through an equity lens in community organizing, education, education policy, youth advocacy, and building an inclusive workforce. In addition to her background as an attorney and researcher, Khalilah brings experiences from the grassroots as a founder of a Baltimore City school focused on social justice, to co-founding a local community collaborative called the Coalition of Black Leaders in Education. She organizes nationally with the EduColor movement and served as the first Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. A proud alum of Morgan State University, Khalilah also obtained her doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania, and her law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law.