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Documentary exposes biases black girls face in schools

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School,” based on the book by the same name, is an engrossing documentary that chronicles an eye-opening exploration of the unfair treatment of black girls in schools that often leads to their expulsion, an increase in school dropout rates and a disproportionate number becoming ensnared in the juvenile justice system.

The documentary, executive produced and co-written by Monique W. Morris, Ed.D, the founder and president of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, is being featured at the Pan African Film Festival Feb. 21.

The film opens with scenes of black girls being physically restrained by police officers in classrooms across the country. The videos, which have since gone viral, have sparked a national conversation about how black girls are more often physically restrained and arrested in schools more than their white counterparts.

“We’re living through a crisis where black girls are being disproportionately pushed away from schools —not because of an imminent threat they pose to the safety of a school, but because they are often experiencing schools as locations for punishment and marginalization,” Morris said. “That’s something that I hear from black girls around the country. “You start to recognize that this is actually a pattern of violence against black girls.”

And the statistics support the growing trend.

According to the 2018 Discipline Data for Girls in U. S. Public Schools a study by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, black girls are six times more likely to be suspended, four times more likely to be arrested and two times more likely to receive corporal punishment than white girls.

“Black girls are the only group of girls to be overrepresented across the entire continuum of school discipline including corporal punishment, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, suspensions, arrests and restraints,” it is stated in the film.

“A recent study by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality stated that black girls experience a specific type of age compression where they’re seen as more adult-like than their white peers,” Morris said. “Among other things, the study found that people percieve black girls to need less nurturing, less protection, to know more about sex and to be more independent than their white peers. That perception disparity begins when the girls are as young as 5 years old.”

Judge Terri B. Jamson, from Franklin County, Ohio, said, “We know that there is a higher number of assaults against black girls. They are more likely to be trafficked, they are more likely to be molested. They are more likely to fall into so many different categories that affect their ability to learn.”

Morris, who interviewed 150 girls, educators and justice professionals across the country for the documentary, said, “I’ve asked girls if they think teachers are afraid of them and some girls will say ‘yes.’ And then they laugh because why would an adult be afraid of a child?”

One of the students depicted in the film is Samaya, 12, who was 7 and in the second grade when she revealed that she was being bullied by her teacher.

“If I spoke without being called on, that would lead to me getting into big trouble,” she recounted.

Samaya’s parents, Damia and Jason Dillard, became increasingly concerned about their daughter’s demeanor.

“She would come home and she would say, ‘The teacher’s just not nice. She doesn’t like me, mom,” recalls her mother, Damia. “The teacher would call me and say, ‘Samaya’s having this problem and that problem.’ It just didn’t make sense,” Damia said. “I thought, ‘Samaya’s having an adjustment problem.’ And I unfortunately looked toward Samaya and not the teacher. I trusted the teacher.”

Things progressed from bad to worse for Samaya.

“I had an argument with another student,” Samaya said. “The teacher got super, duper mad and grabbed my chair that I was sitting in and dragged me across the room to the door and sat me all the way outside.”

Samaya eventually wandered away from the schoolyard and found herself staring down at traffic on a freeway offramp. Samaya said she thought about committing suicide.

“Everything would be easier if I just jumped. Nobody cared for me, nobody loved me,” Samaya recalls saying before wandering off again. Hours later, Samaya’s school called her parents and said they could not find her.

Jason Dillard, anxious to find his daughter, pulled his twin daughters out of class, got in his car and drove around the neighborhood searching for Samaya. He eventually found her wandering the streets.

Samaya’s parents placed her into another school. Samaya had to undergo months of therapy. Samaya’s parents settled a lawsuit against the school and the teacher. The school district issued a statement saying, in part: “We hope that her story, and the story of others will help other districts as it continues to help us.”

Kiara Jean, 18, said she had been suspended from her school for fighting.

“I was known for fighting,” she said proudly. “It was like, ‘Oh, there goes Kiara Jean, she’s always fighting. She’s always in trouble.

“But I should at least be accounted for, like ‘Yeah, it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t deserve that.’ I was fighting because I wanted to be loved, to be accepted. I knew without fighting, what was I? Just that fat girl.”

Venus Evans-Waters, Ph.D, observed that, “It is imperative that we need more black teachers and support staff (in the schools).”

Morris said she thinks “black girlhood and womanhood are constructed by these ideas in our society — of them being hypersexual, of them being loud and angry.”

Pausing, she added that she would like to see more dialogue with educators, parents and clinical professionals about changing the perceptions of black girls in schools.

“I would like schools to become locations for healing so that they can become locations for learning,” she said.

“Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” will be shown at the Pan African Film Festival Feb. 21 at 9:50 p.m.