‘A Battle for the Souls of Black Women’
BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Zulayka McKinstry’s once silly, sociable daughter has stopped seeing friends, talking to siblings and trusting anyone — changes Ms. McKinstry dates to the day in January 2019 when her daughter’s school principal decided that “hyper and giddy” were suspicious behaviors in a 12-year-old girl.
Ms. McKinstry’s daughter was sent to the nurse’s office and forced to undress so that she could be searched for contraband that did not exist.
“It’s not fair that now I have to say, ‘It’s OK to be Black and hyper and giddy,’ that it’s not a crime to smile,” Ms. McKinstry said. “And she doesn’t believe me.”
The Binghamton case is now the subject of what might be a groundbreaking federal lawsuit by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has drawn on the disparate treatment and discipline rates of Black girls to pursue it.
The disproportionate discipline rates of Black boys have long dominated discussions about the harmful effects of punitive discipline policies, but recent high-profile cases have begun to reframe the debate around the plight of Black girls.
In Florida, Kaia Rolle, was only 6 last year when police officers escorted her, hands bound behind her with zip ties, from her school in Orlando after employees there said she had a temper tantrum.
In Sacramento, the first “virtual suspension” to draw national attention was meted out to a 9-year-old Black girl who was kicked out of her Zoom classroom for reportedly sending too many messages. In Michigan, a teenager was sent to juvenile detention for not completing her online schoolwork.
Statistically, Black boys have led the country in suspensions, expulsions and school arrests, and the disparities between them and white boys have been a catalyst for national movements for change. But Black girls’ discipline rates are not far behind those of Black boys; and in several categories, such as suspensions and law enforcement referrals, the disparities between Black and white girls eclipse those between Black and white boys.
A New York Times analysis of the most recent discipline data from the Education Department found that Black girls are over five times more likely than white girls to be suspended at least once from school, seven times more likely to receive multiple out-of-school suspensions than white girls and three times more likely to receive referrals to law enforcement. Black boys experienced lower rates of the same punishments compared with white boys.
In New York City, Black girls in elementary and middle school were about 11 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers in 2017, according to a report from the Education Trust-New York, a research and advocacy group. In Iowa, Black girls were nine times more likely to be arrested at school than white girls, according to a state-by-state analysis conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We are in a battle for the souls of Black girls,” said Monique W. Morris, the executive director of Grantmakers for Girls of Color and author of the book “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School.”
The disproportionate discipline rates among girls indicate what researchers have long said about all Black children: It is not that they misbehave more than their peers, but their behaviors may be judged more harshly. Federal civil rights investigations have found generally that Black students are punished more harshly than their white peers for the same behavior. Black girls in particular are more likely to be punished for subjective infractions like dress code violations and insubordination.
Alliyah Logan, a recent New York City high school graduate, said she routinely saw her Black female friends punished for dress code violations that did not affect her white classmates.
“There would be white girls who wore the same exact outfits or even worse than us,” she said. “They would wear sheer tops and stuff like that, and I would never see anyone call them out. But if a Black student wore a tank top, then that was a problem.”
Sophia Lusala, a junior at Iowa City High School, said she often felt the effects of the “loud, sassy, Black girl” stereotype. In math class last year, when a teacher said he would not review a certain lesson, she asked why — and landed in the hallway “to calm down,” she said.
“We’ve been in school growing our minds so that we can challenge things,” she said. “But when we do so, we’re punished for it.”
Black girls are viewed by educators as more suspicious, mature, provocative and aggressive than their white peers, said Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and an author of the first robust study of “adultification bias” against Black girls. The study found that Black girls as young as 5 were viewed by adults as less innocent than white girls.
“Developmentally, Black girls and white girls are the same — regardless of any differences in outward presentation,” she said.
The Binghamton lawsuit, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund last year against the Binghamton City School District, will test whether such studies can translate into legal recourse.
The organization argued that administrators “were motivated by false race- and gender-based stereotypes in directing, facilitating and conducting these unlawful searches” on Ms. McKinstry’s daughter and three other 12-year-old Black girls. The school nurse who conducted the searches called the girls “loud, disrespectful and having ‘attitudes,’” the complaint said. It accused the nurse of commenting that the breasts of one of the girls were unusually large for her age and of invoking the “stereotypical view of Black girls as older and more mature than white girls of similar age.”
“This case is about the criminalization of Black childhood,” said Cara McClellan, a lawyer who is representing the girls.
Last month, a Syracuse, N.Y., judge ruled that the case could go forward on unlawful search claims but granted the school district’s motion to dismiss the race discrimination charge, in part because the complaint’s data was not recent or granular enough to show that administrators targeted the girls because of their race. He wrote that the “defects in plaintiffs’ complaint” were technical and that a “better pleading could cure them.” The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund plans to amend its filing to bolster its race discrimination claims.
In a statement, Shannon T. O’Connor, the lawyer for the Binghamton City School District, maintained its position that the four girls “presented symptoms that suggested the school nurse should provide a standard health and safety check,” and that they were not strip-searched. She said the girls were cleared without “incident, complaint or discipline of any kind.”
“This has been a trying time for students and educators, one made more so, here, by the interference of an outside interest determined on making a spectacle,” Ms. O’Connor said.
Black Girls Find a Spotlight
In 2014, President Barack Obama announced a national initiative called My Brother’s Keeper to improve the lives of young Black men. Motivated in part by the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Mr. Obama said the initiative was an effort to “change the statistics — not just for the sake of the young men and boys, but for the sake of America’s future.” Among the program’s goals: school discipline reform.
A few months later, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor and scholar of race theory, wrote an opinion article titled “The Girls Obama Forgot.” She also published a report that concluded Black girls were all but ignored by policymakers, funders and researchers in discipline discussions. An NAACP Legal Defense Fund report in 2014 said inattention to Black girls had “fueled the assumption that all girls are doing fine in school,” though they also sustained academic and economic setbacks.
An issues brief in March 2014 by the Education Department concluded that “while boys receive more than two out of three suspensions, Black girls are suspended at higher rates” than “girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys.”
But scholars say that Black girls are still seen as a footnote. “The attitude is: Everything starts with boys. Paint it pink, and it works for girls,” Ms. Epstein said.
As the nation’s political leadership has grown more diverse, that may be changing. Last year, Representative Ayanna S. Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, introduced a bill that targeted the disproportionate discipline rates of Black students, highlighting girls.
Senator Kamala Harris of California, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, tweeted in 2017, “It’s time to address the underlying issues in our education system that limit Black girls’ opportunities before they even reach college.”
LaTasha DeLoach has been working for years through the Iowa-based organizations G!World and Sankofa Outreach Connection to dismantle the perception that Black girls are not as endangered by systemic racism as boys.
“These are slave narratives,” she said. “Black men were publicly hanged, while Black women were raped in secret. This tendency to hide Black women’s pain dates back years.”
In 2015, when Ms. DeLoach was elected as the first Black woman to serve on the Iowa City Community School Board in 30 years, she began raising alarms about Black girls’ discipline rates. The data showed that 75 percent of Black female discipline referrals were for disruption, compared with 19 percent for white girls; 69 percent were for defiance, insubordination or noncompliance, compared with 19 percent for white girls.
“When you walk into a school here and you’re a Black girl, they’re just waiting for you to open your mouth,” Ms. DeLoach said.
The Iowa City Community School District said in a statement that it was “committed to identifying, understanding and rectifying disproportionality within our schools.”
A report by the Education Trust and the National Women’s Law Center, released in August, urged school districts to seek alternatives to suspensions and detentions for girls of color. Girls of color, it concluded, were being subjected to “punishments that have more to do with who these girls are rather than what they do.”
Cpl. Betty Covington of the Baltimore City School Police Department agrees.
When she joined the department in 1998, she said she found herself “arresting kids for stuff they didn’t even have control over.” Black girls were suspended for fighting while their white or Latina classmates were consoled. So she created Girls Expecting More Success, or GEMS, a nonprofit youth program.
“These girls are going to grow up and have babies,” Corporal Covington said. “So, if I save a girl, I save a family, a whole community.”
A dozen girls gathered in a principal’s office this year to reflect on their relationship with their unlikely mentor.
“Police are out here shooting people up and locking people up, but Officer Covington is different,” said Zoey Jones, an eighth grader in the GEMS program. “She pays attention to us for the positive stuff.”
Kaia Jones said she remembered seeing Corporal Covington cross the hallway of Digital Harbor High School, when she was in ninth grade.
“She said, ‘You caught my attention,’ and I was like, ‘Lord, not today,’” recalled Kaia Jones, who graduated in 2019 and was known as outspoken, “a fighter.”
The officer told her she was “outstanding” and asked her to join the program.
Corporal Covington “tells us that nobody can say we don’t have the magic,” Kaia Jones said. “We threaten society because we’re the latest trendsetters, we don’t let nobody walk over us, and people want to be like us. Black girls go through the most. But it’s because we’re just so powerful.”
The long-term trauma for Black girls from disproportionate school discipline is little understood, experts say.
“We talk about death a lot in the Black community. We see physical death a lot, but what we don’t see a lot is spirit murdering,” said Bettina L. Love, an education professor at the University of Georgia.
“When we talk about racism, we talk about it in terms of statistics and numbers,” she said. “But we don’t talk about what happens when you have to go into a school where nobody in that building believes you, or believes in you.”
The Binghamton case spurred protests and petitions, but the girls — now 14 and starting high school — see no justice.
“Justice would be for people to know what we go through now, and for this never to happen to another African-American female,” said Ms. McKinstry’s daughter, whom The New York Times is not identifying to protect the privacy of a minor.
A state investigation ordered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo produced a report that listed the district’s policies, including its strip-search policy, but did not address the girls’ case. The New York State Police Department said its investigation was closed without charges.
In their first public comments since the case erupted, the Binghamton girls said they still struggled to make sense of their treatment.
“White girls can laugh or be giddy, and teachers aren’t going to think they’re high,” said one of the girls, the daughter of Lia Silva. “They’re going to think they’re just having fun.”
In the days after the incident, the district acknowledged in a statement the “unintended consequences of making the students feel traumatized,” and said they were working with the girls’ families “to support their children’s success.”
But the girls say that because the district continues to deny their experience, they still do not feel comfortable attending school here.
Ms. McKinstry’s daughter said her middle school grades were affected, some falling from A’s to F’s. “It’s harder to focus when you can feel people are against you,” she said.
“I can’t even go to the nurse’s office comfortably,” said her classmate, Ms. Silva’s daughter.
Their mothers have run out of ways to assure them.
“She feels like I can’t save her from things anymore,” Ms. Silva said. “She’s still asking me, ‘Mom, why did they do that?’”
For Kaia Rolle in Florida, bed-wetting and nightmares were the first signs of trauma, followed by separation anxiety and crippling fear of the police, her grandmother, Meralyn Kirkland, said.
“You can’t even raise your voice at Kaia to discipline her,” Ms. Kirkland said. “If you reach for her, she’ll flail around or run around screaming that somebody’s trying to hurt her.”
Kaia, now 7, has made progress. She sees the injustice: “She said, ‘Grandma, if I was white, they would not have arrested me,’” Ms. Kirkland recalled.
But sleep apnea surgery eased her exhaustion-induced tantrums. She secured a partial scholarship to attend a private school, where she is thriving. A Florida law, the Kaia Rolle Act, requires officers to set procedures for arresting children under the age of 10.
But she has a long road ahead.
“Ten, 20 years from now, she could be pulled over for a traffic stop and have a flashback to her arrest, and it could cause her to attack the officer or pull away,” Ms. Kirkland said. “And we all know how that could end.”