Skip to Main

September 17, 2019

Essence: Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley Tackles The ‘PUSHOUT’ Of Black Girls At School

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) knows that for too many Black girls, an average school day can spiral out of control with life-altering consequences. A fight with a classmate, a tense exchange with a teacher, or a dress code infraction, are increasingly yielding harsh disciplinary action and criminalization for children of color, including Black girls.

Today, data shows that while African American girls comprise about 16 percent of the U.S. school population, they now make up 33 percent of school-related arrests.

“Too frequently justice is denied for Black and Brown girls,” said Pressley, who hosted the world premiere of PUSHOUT:  The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference last week in Washington, D.C.

 “It was my first time seeing the film, but I began working on these issues while in the Boston City Council,” Pressley told ESSENCE after the screening, which drew a standing room only audience. “Now as a Congresswoman, I am focused on disrupting discriminatory policies that criminalize Black girls and perpetuate the growing school-to-confinement pipeline.”

PUSHOUT, produced by Women in the Room Productions, is the brainchild of director Jacoba Atlas, Dr. Monique W. Morris, author of the 2018 book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, and  executive producer Denise Pines.

Narrated by Black girls and teens (aged seven to 19) who share heart-wrenching true stories, the feature-length film examines educational and disciplinary disparities around the country.

The documentary weaves in the voices of educators and fellow experts such as law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw who provide context about educational equity, gender equality and social justice. The consensus is that Black girls are often misunderstood by teachers, administrators, and the justice system—the very institutions charged with helping them flourish.

Morris, president of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute (NBWJI), told ESSENCE thatBlack girls are the only group of girls in the country experiencing such harsh disciplinary measures at every educational level. 

“Black girls are impacted by the policies, practices, conditions and prevailing consciousness that render them vulnerable to criminalization,” she said. “The documentary is a tool to explore how educators, parents, and policy makers can demonstrate that we love our girls and hold them, and their educational opportunities, as sacred to our community.”

The premiere in the nation’s capital featured a panel with youth advocate, Naomi Wadler; Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President, National Education Association; Dr. Lindsa McIntyre, High School Superintendent, Boston Public Schools; Wakumi Douglas, Founder, S.O.U.L Sisters Leadership Collective; Sade Ratliff, a student at Stonehill College in Massachusetts; and Judith Browne Dianis, Esq. Executive Director, Advancement Project.

Browne Dianis told ESSENCE that while research shows Black students do not misbehave more than white students, they are disproportionately pushed out of their schools, arrested and funneled into the justice system, fueling and keeping the school-to-prison pipeline alive.

The presence of school police, she asserts, is part of the problem. “Research and the experiences of young people of color have taught us that police in schools create a toxic school climate and fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Advancement Project and Alliance for Educational Justice have co-authored a report, “We Came to Learn: A Call to Action for Police-Free Schools” and recently launched a website with resources to propel their fight for #PoliceFreeSchools. 

They’ve created an #AssaultAt map to chart known incidents of students who’ve being assaulted by school police. It reflects numerous incidents nationwide captured on cell phone video or reported to media outlets. 

While some cases have resulted in legal action, Browne Dianis said more documentation is necessary to help youth of color. “These assaults are like witnessing the beating of Rodney King over and over again, but this time on Black children.” 

Morris and her NBWJI colleagues have released a solution-oriented education policy briefing around issues raised in the film. The report (read here) makes multiple local, state and federal policy recommendations. 

They include eliminating suspension and expulsion for pre-K and grades K-2; eliminating zero tolerance policies; developing more gender equitable codes of conduct and including students in that process, and supporting legislative initiatives that improve the overall system.

Pressley told ESSENCE that she intends to introduce legislation in Congress “during this session” aimed at shifting the paradigm and helping girls of color thrive at school.

“I’m working on these issues to dismantle the school to legal system pipeline, and to do that at scale on the federal level,” she said. “I’m feeling so blessed the universe aligned and we [Morris and the filmmakers] been able to be partners in this work.”

Meanwhile, there are future plans for PUSHOUT, whose funders include NoVo Foundation, Meadow Fund, Ford Foundation, Ms. Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Stuart Foundation and Films for Purpose.

In October, Youth Justice Awareness Month, Morris and nearly 200 organizations will participate in events. They include an event on October 11, the International Day of the Girl, being dubbed a “Black Girls Takeover” of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Guests will include Black girls, educators, scholars, and advocates.

There’s also an HBCU Tour of the film from November 12 – 16, 2019 at Virginia Union University, Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College and Shaw University.