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September 18, 2020

In Teen Vogue Op-Ed, Pressley, Annamma and Thompson Call for an End to the Criminalization of Black Girls with Disabilities in Schools

WASHINGTON – Today, in a joint op-ed published in Teen Vogue, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Stanford University Professor Dr. Subini Ancy Annamma, and disability rights advocate Vilissa Thompson, called for an end to the policies and systemic injustice that result in the overcriminalization of Black girls with disabilities in schools.

In the op-ed, the authors point out that Black girls are seven times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls and four times more likely to be arrested at school. Additionally, while Black girls make up 12% of girls suspended in the United States, Black girls with disabilities account for 19% of girls with disabilities who were suspended.

Last year, Congresswoman Pressley partnered with scholar and advocate Dr. Monique Morris to introduce the Ending PUSHOUT Act, legislation to end the criminalization and punitive pushout of girls of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQIA students and other marginalized students from schools and disrupt the school-to-confinement pathway.

The full text of the op-ed is below and can be viewed online here.

Op-Ed: Black Girls With Disabilities Are Disproportionately Criminalized

By Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Dr. Subini Ancy Annamma, and Vilissa Thompson

September 17, 2020

When school suddenly went virtual in the first weeks of the pandemic, one survey found that 4 out of 10 teenagers did not attend a single online class. So why was Grace*, a 15-year-old Black girl in Michigan, incarcerated for not completing her homework and getting up late for online school, which a judge said violated her probation? As ProPublica reported, Grace spent over two months incarcerated, despite an order eliminating juvenile incarceration unless the child “is a substantial and immediate safety risk to others.” After protests, a petition, congressional action, and a refusal by one judge to release her, Grace was freed. As shocking as Grace’s case was, it was, unfortunately, not unique. According to data from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Data, Black girls are seven times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls and four times more likely to be arrested at school. Grace’s story is part of a larger pattern of criminalizing Black girls for minor misbehavior at school.

In September 2019, Kaia, a six-year-old Black girl, was arrested and sent in a police car to a juvenile detention center. The cause: a tantrum in school, where she kicked teachers. In February 2019, an 11-year-old Black girl, Malayla*, said she had her braids pulled out of her head by a teacher. (The teacher denied doing so). Each of these stories caused some level of outrage.

The truth is we can’t separate the punishments that Black girls face for their race and gender from their disabilities. Every part of their identity is relevant. Not completing her homework and not getting up for school can be tied to Grace’s ADHD, which can result in both inattention and sleep challenges. Kaia’s grandmother reported the six year old was acting out in class due to a lack of sleep because of sleep apnea, which impacts the behavior of young children. Malayla, who, according to her mother, sprayed perfume after the teacher asked her to stop, struggled with frustration issues and has an “individualized education program (IEP).” In each instance, Black girls were harshly punished for behaviors related to their disabilities.

At first glance, these may seem like one-off instances of punitive teachers and aggressive cops. But when put into context, it becomes clear that their stories are the result of an education system that over-criminalizes Black girls with disabilities like Grace, Kaia, and Malayla. These young girls are suspended at even higher rates than their non-disabled peers. In 2012, the Department of Education found Black girls made up 12% of girls suspended, while Black girls with disabilities accounted for 19% of girls with disabilities who were suspended. Without a doubt, special education, disability, and ableism must be recognized for the role they play in criminalizing Black girls.

Who we decide to criminalize matters too. Adults focused on putting Grace in a juvenile facility when she did not do her homework, but she’s a disabled teenager struggling to keep up with school during a pandemic. Kaia’s struggles with sleep were criminalized while the officer reportedly ignored department policy, which required him to seek approval before arresting anyone under 12. We can see that adults often fail to follow the necessary policies, rules, or laws, and yet it is the Black girls with disabilities who are ultimately punished. Special education labels and laws do not offer blanket protection.

Black girls are adultified and expected to act older, and their behaviors are imagined as more threatening. Moreover, the very policies designed to protect white disabled students often do little to protect Black girls with disabilities.

These girls are all too often expected to get by without sufficient accommodations as if they were adults, but they are Black girls with disabilities whose behavior is frequently read as threatening. Instead of disability being a protective factor that is met with care and empathy, many Black girls are instead targeted.

This is a systemic issue. Anti-Blackness and white supremacy are dependent on ableism and suggest that the behavior and thinking of Black disabled girls are so damaged that they can only be fixed by physical coercion or jail. These injustices are the reason congresswoman Pressley introduced the Ending PUSHOUT Act, which would end the criminalization of Black and brown girls in school and disrupt the school to confinement pathway for students like Grace.

As the chaotic new school year begins, and educators, families, and students alike are struggling to adjust. Many have suggested that some of the first students to come back should be students in special education. However, we must deeply consider how these decisions will impact Black girls with disabilities. What happens if masks are required and because of impulsivity, a Black girl with disabilities pulls her own mask off? What if, like Kaia, a little Black girl with disabilities has a meltdown and hits a teacher? What if a Black girl with disabilities does not do their online schoolwork like Grace? What if a teacher or probation officer or judge decides that these things are criminal because a Black girl with disabilities does them?

When incidents like these happen, we should begin by asking if their behavior is related to s a student’s disability. If so, it should not be punished. If Black girls break the law, we need to understand why. Are they trying to meet their basic needs? Are they fighting back against being read as threatening? Criminalization does not solve underlying issues. Ultimately, our girls need to be met with care and empathy, not punishment and trauma.

We cannot ignore or erase the disabilities of Black girls. If we do, we erase their humanity, telling them we will only advocate for the parts of them we are comfortable with, while the rest of them are discarded. The goal here is not to distinguish them from other Black girls or girls of color with disabilities, but rather to build movements that acknowledge and embrace the ways our struggles are interconnected, even when not the same. We must recognize the full humanity of Black girls with disabilities, allowing them to thrive, and to show up in the world just the way they are. They are not broken, but our systems are. By centering their voices and their stories, we can rebuild a more just world that values their contributions and affirms that Black Disabled Lives Matter.

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