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New Documentary Examines How Black Girls Are Disproportionately Punished In Schools


A video of a shocking arrest has been generating outrage since it appeared online a few weeks ago. It shows an Orlando police officer arresting a student and zip tying her hands before escorting her to his car. The girl was just 6 years old.


KAIA ROLLE: No, please.

DENNIS TURNER: You have to.

KAIA: No, please. Give me a second chance.

MONTAGNE: It makes you cry to hear that.

MONIQUE MORRIS: Every time. Every time.

MONTAGNE: That's Monique Morris. She's executive producer of a documentary airing next week on PBS. It's called "Pushout: The Criminalization Of Black Girls In Schools." She's author of a book of the same name. By the way, the child we just heard - her family said she'd thrown a tantrum and had kicked a school staff member. That's why the police were called. And, Monique Morris, welcome to the program.

MORRIS: Hello.

MONTAGNE: If you would, please, lay out for us some statistics that are truly shocking - starting with the fact that black girls make up just 16% of the students nationally in public schools. But what has the research found?

MORRIS: Black girls are the only group of girls who are disproportionately overrepresented across the spectrum of discipline and at every educational level. So that means that black girls are six to seven times more likely than their white counterparts to experience an out-of-school suspension. They are nearly three times more likely to be arrested on school campuses. And so we see, you know, these incidents, again, across the spectrum of discipline in schools, where black girls are experiencing harm in this way.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's hear from one of the girls that we see in in your documentary. Her name is Samaya. She's talking about how her teacher treated her when she was in second grade.


SAMAYA: Everything I did was just like the slightest bit of me doing something wrong - like a normal 7-year-old would do, like getting up or on - actually speaking without being called on. That would just result to me getting into big trouble. And that was just - there was nothing I could do.

MONTAGNE: Samaya was punished kind of regularly. One time, her teacher pushed her in her desk into the hallway. She was denied recess, ignored by her teacher. So she left school. She left school as in walked away as a 7-year-old from her class. That was pretty dramatic. I mean, she was actually bullied by her teacher.

MORRIS: Yes. I mean, she wasn't even, you know, dragged into the hallway. She was placed outside in the winter with no jacket and was left there. That was a typical argument that second graders get into over who had ownership over a specific, you know, piece of equipment in the classroom. And instead of giving folks time - the young ones time to work out their dispute, the response was violent. With Samaya's case, you know, she was seen as older than she actually was. And so she wandered aimlessly until she finally wandered close enough to her house that her family found her on - walking.

MONTAGNE: In this documentary we hear about adulterization (ph) - that idea that these girls, at one level, are not viewed as children, partly because they're not viewed as fragile. And how much of a problem is that?

MORRIS: So it's a big problem. And what that means is that adults are seeing black girls as in need of less protection, less nurturing, less comforting, that they are believed to be more independent than their white counterparts, that they are believed to know more about adult topics like sex. That leads to situations where adults may have less patience with them. It can lead adults to fail to respond to young people who are experiencing trauma or are in crisis in some way. We cannot just say that young people are disposable because we think they're older than they actually are.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about another girl in the documentary who has a slightly different aspect of presenting as not fragile. Her name is Kiara Jean. She's 18, daughter of Haitian immigrants. And she's going to - when we meet her - an alternative high school. But she has been expelled. And throughout school, she's been known as a fighter.


KIARA JEAN: When I was fighting, it just made me feel like, oh, I'm tough. So now everybody want to be my friend. So like, I became a crash dummy in some way because I wasn't fighting for myself. I mostly was fighting because I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be accepted because I know without fighting, what was I? Just that fat girl.

MORRIS: That gets me every time. And when I first started having conversations with the public about these conditions, overwhelmingly, parents, community members, educators would always ask, what about the fighters? Obviously, they need to be removed from the classroom, right? What Kiara reveals for us is that not only is she working through some pretty intense issues in her own home life but that her fighting was an outward expression of her depression and that had people responded to that core issue, she would've stopped fighting.

MONTAGNE: What can be done other than maybe consciousness raising on the problem?

MORRIS: What schools can do is reduce the amount of investments that they've made in what I call instruments of surveillance - metal detectors, law enforcement - and really spend time building out counselors. There must be a development of a robust continuum of alternatives to suspension and expulsion in schools so that what we're doing is really responding to young people using restorative approaches, using meditation, using mindfulness and mindful awareness and breathing. So there's a lot that we can deconstruct around the policies and practices and conditions that actually facilitate safety in schools versus what we've been told facilitates safety in schools and challenge ourselves to do better for our girls.

MONTAGNE: Monique Morris. She is the executive producer of the new documentary "Pushout," which starts airing on PBS next week. Thanks so much for joining us.

MORRIS: Thank you for having me on. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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