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Giving Voice & Making Space: Dismantling the Education Industrial Complex in an Effort to Free Our Black Girls* (MS/HS)

December 13, 2016

Aja Reynolds & Stephanie D. Hicks



Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images

Intended Audience: Middle and High School

Objectives: To create and deepen awareness of black girls’ interactions with law enforcement in schools and the school to prison pipeline; to critically examine and respond to policies and laws that shape students in-school experiences; to participate in large and small group discussions based on readings and research; and, to create a historical timeline that highlights and connects the individual stories of people and the actions of large institutions (legal system, schools, etc.).

Connections to Middle School and/or High School: Timelines can be used to help students understand the context of historical and current events. They can also be used creatively to encourage students to imagine different paths of engagement and activism. In this lesson plan, students will construct a large-scale timeline outlining some of the interactions that  black women and girls’ have had with law enforcement in schools.

National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) Standards

  • Assist learners in utilizing chronological thinking so that they can distinguish between past, present, and future time; can place historical narratives in the proper chronological framework; can interpret data presented in time lines; and can compare alternative models for periodization;
  • Guide learners in practicing skills of historical analysis and interpretation, such as compare and contrast, differentiate between historical facts and interpretations, consider multiple perspectives, analyze cause and effect relationships, compare competing historical narratives, recognize the tentative nature of historical interpretations, and hypothesize the influence of the past;
  • Help learners to identify issues and problems in the past, recognize factors contributing to such problems, identify and analyze alternative courses of action, formulate a position or course of action, and evaluate the implementation of that decision; and,
  • Enable learners to develop historical understanding through the avenues of social, political, economic, and cultural history and the history of science and technology.

Lesson Plan Activities

  • Using the Endnotes section of the Black Girls Matter report, have students read stories about the interactions that black girls have in schools with police officers.
  • Have students work in small groups to research and document additional incidents to help construct a classroom-scale timeline of these stories and incidents. (Students should be encouraged to add their own stories and stories of family and friends to the timeline.)
  • Have students add to the timeline local, state and national education policies that contribute to the increased criminalization of black girls in school environments.
  • Moderate a classroom discussion and have the students think out loud about potential solutions.
  • At the end of the discussion, students should work together to construct an alternative timeline that features possible solutions for discipline policies at the school, district, state and national level.


1) Partial assessment takes place as the students work to construct their alternative timeline during the activity. The students’ ability to imagine alternative discipline policies and practices depends upon the critical thinking that took place in the classroom discussion.

2) Additional assessment can take place in follow-up classroom discussions where students can construct alternative timelines about #BlackLivesMatter, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Rights Movement, to name just a few.

3) Students should be encouraged to share with the group their ideas for future practices and policies.

4) Students can also share their ideas in an informal free-writing exercise after the discussion.


My child – and I’m not mad at her – she was brave enough to speak out against what was going on, and didn’t back down. And it resulted in her being arrested…But looking at the video, who was really disturbing the school? Was it my daughter? Or was it the officer that came into the classroom and did that to the young girl?  – Doris Kenny, mother of Spring Valley High School student Niya Kenny, who spoke out against the forcible restraint and arrest of her SVHH classmate


In October of 2015, a black student at Spring Valley High School was forcibly removed from her desk and thrown across a classroom by Deputy Ben Fields, a white school resource officer. The officer and school officials contended the student was handled so aggressively because she refused to surrender her cellular phone and leave the classroom when asked.

A video of the incident taken by another student went viral on the internet, capturing the attention of national news outlets, law enforcement officials and supporters, and political and religious leaders. Reactions ranged from skepticism about the cause of the incident to defense of the officer to questions about why witnesses (school staff and students) chose not to intervene. Eventually, background research on the officer revealed that this was not the first time that he had used aggressive force with students. Deputy Fields was actually under  investigation for targeting black and Latino students at the schools where he worked.

Outraged students, parents, community members, and activists sounded off online and elsewhere in the media: Why was such force used against a child? Did the student’s actions justify Deputy Fields’ response? Why was the student’s “disruptive” behavior deemed a criminal act and not a school discipline issue? Would Deputy Fields reaction have  been different if the student was white? If it was a white female student, would the teacher had even called an officer?  And, what are the ramifications of having resource officers (SROs) in schools? Scholars and activists who focus on the school to prison pipeline broadly, and the criminalization of black women and girls specifically, were a loud and dissenting voice amidst the chorus of supporters for SROs and their use of force. As authors and researchers, we place this incident in the context of the ongoing criminalization of black women and girls with the aim to advocate for changes in the ways in which black girls are policed in school environments.

The Criminalization of Black Women and Girls

From 1985 to 1997, black girls were the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice population (Puzzanchera, Adams, & Sickmund, 2011). By 2010, black girls were 36% of juvenile females in residential placement (Sickmund, Sladky, Kang, & Puzzanchera, 2011). In examining data from the 2011-2012 academic year, the Department of Education (2014) found that black girls were six times more likely to be suspended than white girls. During that academic year, black girls represented approximately 12% of the suspensions compared to 2% of white girls.

Using the lens of anti-blackness, researchers Connie Wun (2015) and Michael Dumas (2016) have contributed rich critiques of schooling for black children. They re-identify educational institutions as prisons, reliant on policing black bodies, and on diminishing their sense of agency. Their studies have challenged the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP); pointing us to a deeper analysis of the ways in which schools operate as prisons and as sites of trauma for black students. Literature focusing on the imprisonment and surveillance of black women helps us understand schools as an apparatus of prison systems (Davis, 2003; Richie, 2012). Kimberle Crenshaw’s (1991) intersectional analysis intervention provides a method to assess the nuances of oppression experienced by black girls. This work details the racism, sexism, and misogyny, that black women and girls experience and offer critiques with an intent to dismantle these oppressive systems.

Black Girls in School

In recent years, more research that centers on the strengths and assets of black children has been generated, but it has been primarily concerned with the plight of black boys. An effect of this trend is that we see black girls as marginal (Grant, 1992; Morris, 2012; AAPF & CCISPS, 2014; Wun 2015). Taken together, these problems—specifically the lack of focus on asset-based black education research, the typifying of black communities as problematic, and the disregard of the plight of black girls in schools—could be considered a crisis in black education. What affect does focusing on the effects of school discipline on black girls do for black education research as a field? And what can it do for black girls?

When black girls in schools display behaviors that are deemed “ghetto” or are a deviation from the social norms that construct acceptable behavior according to a narrow, white middle-class scope of femininity, they are deemed non-conforming and thereby subject to criminalizing responses (Holsinger & Holsinger, 2005; Blake, Butler, Lewis, & Darensbourg, 2011; Morris, 2012). In a study by AAPF & CCISPS, black girls expressed that teachers spent a profound amount of time correcting their behavior, much more time than they spent on teaching (2014). Teachers perceive black girls as being “loud, defiant, and precocious,” and black girls are more likely than their white or Latino peers to be reprimanded for being “unladylike” (Morris, 2007). In Grant’s (1992) research, emphasis placed by teachers on learning and performing social skills was less apparent for white girls, black boys, and white boys than black girls. Furthermore, Grant’s work suggested that educators expressed more interest in promoting the social—rather than academic—skills of black girls. Some black female teachers also play an active role in trying to correct black girls’ behaviors, but with the consciousness of the implications of these stereotypes (Tyson, 2003). In other words, they are trying to protect black girls from being reprimanded for not being “lady-like,” according to white middle class standards. bell hooks (1984) and Patricia Hill Collins (2013) developed foundational critical Black Feminist Theories to deconstruct white supremacist, patriarchal influences that creep into intimate spaces in black communities, including home, church, and organizing spaces. Their contributions challenged respectability politics, and created new possibilities for black women to define themselves.

Hortense Spillers (1987) and Saidiya Hartman (1997) intently explore the dehumanization of black women under the conditions of slavery and the “after-life of slavery” that animates anti-Blackness today. Their work forces us to wrestle with our “captive” or enslaved African experiences and the ways those experiences shape our identities and all sectors of black life, including educational institutions. Their work suggests that we refer to previous Black Feminist critiques when formulating research and theories that address the experiences of black girls in school, and that we support the resistance of black girls to better support them.

Creating spaces of/for “Carefree Black Girls”

In order to effectively reckon with the neglect of black girls, we must not only begin and end with images of them being tackled, dragged and punched by white law enforcement, we must also critically assess all the ways they are disposed of daily. Programs aimed solely at supporting black boys, like the White House Initiative, reinforce the invisibility of black girls. Several spectacles of black girls being violently apprehended by law enforcement in schools and at pools last year, unfortunately, exposed truths about the vulnerability of black girls’ bodies to police brutality, and reminded black girls that they must repeatedly come to their own rescue. These situations should not be read as a new phenomena, but should be understood as part of a tradition that legitimizes the use of violence to control the behaviors of black girls inside and outside the community. The emphasis on “correcting” behavior, as discussed previously in this article, demonstrates this historical commitment to manipulating Black bodies.

In our experience, “carefree” black girls become the most targeted in educational spaces. They unapologetically embrace their black girl identity, and will aggressively protect their right to exist. They are also defying the social contract and articulating their protest to such restrictions through various expressions, both verbally and non-verbally. It is imperative that as we are deconstructing and interpreting the systems of oppressions that impact the lives of black girls, we simultaneously construct spaces for them to become their most authentic selves. Rather than criminalizing them for being “sassy” or “un-ladylike,” we must be willing to relinquish conventional ideas of respectability to better affirm “care-free” black girls. More than creating a space for them to express themselves, we must commit ourselves to responding to their needs lovingly, appropriately and effectively.

Conclusion: Using Research to Advocate for Black Girls

What does creating spaces for “carefree black girls” mean for black educators? And what does it mean for the field of black education?

In classrooms, schools, and other educational spaces, it means that teachers and school staff must recognize the informal and formal policies that disproportionately criminalize black girls. This includes interrogating what is deemed appropriate verbal and non-verbal responses while deepening knowledge about the ways in which racism and sexism have informed the relationship between schools and law enforcement. It also means holding ourselves accountable when crafting and enforcing school discipline policies, and questioning our own motives.

In black education research broadly, we must continue to interrogate black girls’ in-school experiences. This work cannot be tangential. We must also collectively articulate the kind of world we want to give to black girls. If an aim of our research is to inform future educational practices with the hope of improving the educational experiences of black girls (and boys), we must ask what world our findings are preparing them for. Is that the world we hope to create for them?


Works Cited

African American Policy Forum & Columbia Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies. Black girls matter: Pushed out, overpoliced and underprotected. Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, 2014.

Blake, Jamilia J., Bettie Ray Butler, Chance W. Lewis, and Alicia Darensbourg. “Unmasking the inequitable discipline experiences of urban Black girls: Implications for urban educational stakeholders.” The Urban Review 43, no. 1 (2011): 90-106.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, 2004.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” Stanford law review (1991): 1241-1299.

Davis, Angela Y. Are prisons obsolete? Seven Stories Press, 2011.

Dumas, Michael J. “Things Are Gonna Get Easier: Refusing Schooling as a Site of Black Suffering.” Huffpost Black Voices. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

Grant, Linda. “Race and the schooling of young girls.” Education and gender equality (1992): 91-113.

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth-century America. Oxford University Press on Demand, 1997.

Holsinger, Kristi, and Alexander M. Holsinger. “Differential pathways to violence and self-injurious behavior: African American and white girls in the juvenile justice system.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 42, no. 2 (2005): 211-242.

Hooks, Bell. Feminist theory: From margin to center. South End, 1984.

Jarret, Valerie and Broderick Johnson. “My Brother’s Keeper: A New White House Initiative to Empower Boys and Young Men of Color.” The White House Blog. Web 15 Feb 2016.

Morris, Edward W. ““Ladies” or “loudies”? Perceptions and experiences of black girls inclassrooms.” Youth & Society 38, no. 4 (2007): 490-515.

Morris, Monique W. Race, Gender, and the School to Prison Pipeline: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls. African American Policy Forum, 2012.

Puzzanchera, Charles, Benjamin Adams, and M. Sickmund. Juvenile Court Statistics 2008 Report. Pittsburgh, Pa: National Center for Juvenile Justice (2011).

Richie, Beth. Arrested justice: Black women, violence, and America’s prison nation. NYU Press,2012.

Sickmund, Melissa, T. J. Sladky, Wei Kang, and Charles Puzzanchera. “Easy access to thecensus of juveniles in residential placement.” Retrieved February 14 (2011): 2013.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: An American grammar book.” diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81.

Tyso Karolyn. “Notes from the back of the room: Problems and paradoxes in the schooling ofyoung black students.” Sociology of Education (2003): 326-343.

U.S. Department of Education. Office of Civil Rights: Civil rights data collection. Department of Education, 2014.

Wun, Connie. “Against Captivity: Black Girls and School Discipline Policies in the Afterlife of Slavery.” Educational Policy (2015)

Yan, Holly, Kevin Conlon and John Newsome. “S.C. school officer Ben Fields’ career marked with lawsuits, praise.” CNN. 15 Feb. 2016.

*A version of this lesson plan and essay were originally published under the title “Can We Live? Working Toward a Praxis of Support for Carefree Black Girls” in the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s Black History Bulletin, v79, (2). It is reprinted here with permission from the authors.

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