Hundreds have protested and thousands more are showing their support for #FreeGrace, centered around a 15-year-old Black girl in Michigan who’s been in juvenile detention since May for violating her probation by not completing her online schoolwork.
Grace, whose middle name is being used to protect her identity, was charged with assault and theft last year for physically fighting with her mother and taking a classmate’s cell phone at school. Part of the terms of her probation, handed down in April of this year, included completing her schoolwork during the sudden shift to online instruction as a result of COVID-19.
Her story, first reported by ProPublica Illinois with the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Magazine, highlights the disparities at play in the juvenile justice system as they relate to the intersections of race, gender and disabilities (Grace has Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and was receiving special education services). (Recently, ProPublica reported that Grace was released.)
While her story is disturbing and heartbreaking, it is also unfortunately common for Black girls in this country’s school systems. According to ProPublica’s analysis of data for the county where Grace lives, about 4,800 juvenile cases were referred to the county court from January 2016 to June 2020, and 42% of those involved Black youth, even though only about 15% of the young people in the county are Black. Nationally, Black girls are more than twice as likely to be suspended from school as their White counterparts, due to racist and sexist stereotypes, according to a 2017 report from the National Women’s Law Center.
Monique W. Morris is the executive director of Grantmakers for Girls of Color, founder and board member of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, and author of “PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” and “Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls.” Lisalyn Jacobs is CEO of Just Solutions: Bringing in Justice to Counteract Injustice, a women’s rights advocate, and formerly worked with the Obama Administration on issues such as equity and access. They’ve taken some time to talk about their perspectives on Grace’s story and how her treatment is similar to that of many Black girls in schools and the juvenile justice system. (These email interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
Q: When you heard about Grace’s sentencing, what did that bring up for you, particularly as it relates to the work you do to gain justice for Black girls and women?
Monique W. Morris: When I heard about Grace’s sentencing, I was appalled and disappointed that the power of the bench was used to unnecessarily criminalize a girl for not completing her homework. In my book, “PUSHOUT,” I write about how judicial orders to attend schools are often a part of conditions for Black girls on probation and may contribute to their confinement if there is a failure to comply. I also describe how Black girls who are in contact with the juvenile court are typically experiencing a host of life disruptions that impact their ability to comply and may need community interventions that support them. So, my first thought was that if compliance to these type of court orders is difficult on a regular day, imagine how much support these girls are going to need in these unprecedented times, in a global pandemic where so many of our children (and their parents) are experiencing significant life disruption!
Lisalyn Jacobs: Grace’s sentencing, while outrageous and perhaps shocking to the uninitiated, was a reminder that the criminal justice system can be reluctant to show leniency or grant second chances to Black children, regardless of their age, sex or the severity of their alleged “crime.” I also viewed Grace’s infraction in very personal terms: I am the mother of a 12-year-old Black boy. I know that I, along with many friends and colleagues who have privilege and resources, have struggled (not always successfully) during this pandemic to keep our kids on track with their schoolwork, yet none of us have faced the threat of having our kids taken from us and placed in an institution because of our completely predictable failings during this time.
Q: Dr. Morris, you’ve written about the implicit racial and gender biases that inform how people read the behaviors of Black girls and women. For you and Ms. Jacobs, how do these kinds of biases factor into your understanding of Grace’s experience with the juvenile justice system, so far?
Morris: My work has explored how implicit and explicit racialized gender bias create an age compression that impacts how adults perceive and interact with Black girls. From my understanding of the case, I think it would be important to consider the work of Dr. Jamilia Blake and Rebecca Epstein on the adultification of Black girls. In their 2017 study, they found that Black girls are perceived as more adult-like than their White peers, which results in them being perceived as needing less nurturing, less protection and less comfort. They also found that Black girls experience adultification when they are as young as age 5, and that it peaks when they are between the ages of 10 to 14. In my TEDTalk, I call attention to how these beliefs may impact adults’ view of Black girls as disposable, the degree to which they have patience with Black girls, and the extent to which they are willing to recognize the negative or undesirable behaviors of Black girls as symptoms of trauma rather than as deliberate affronts to authority. These biases also prevent adults from recognizing that an appropriate response to a developmentally consistent adolescent act, such as failing to complete homework in a pandemic, would not be reason for confinement in a secure correctional facility.
Jacobs: Also significant here is that Grace has ADHD, and she told her caseworker that she was struggling. I can’t see how the same judge — who was being urged by the governor, in the context of the pandemic, to release all non-dangerous juveniles in detention — would have looked at a 15-year-old White girl with a disability who was struggling academically, and dispatched her to detention. In that instance, she would have seen the vulnerable child that she was unable to see in Grace.
Q: A ProPublica story about Grace mentions a state senator who is said to be considering introducing legislation that would require court employees, child welfare workers and social workers to complete implicit bias training. What would you hope to see addressed in these sorts of trainings, that would benefit Black girls as they navigate the school system?
Morris: I would hope that these trainings do more than just identify the presence of bias, but also do intentional work to build organizations — through policies, practices and cultivation of culture — that examine ways to co-construct safety through a lens of trauma prevention and healing. For schools, that means actively working to counter the adultification of Black girls in schools and working to design systems of collective accountability that respond to trauma.
Q: The culture of “zero tolerance” is apparent in Grace’s case, with Judge Mary Ellen Brennan quoted as having said “I told her she was on thin ice, and I told her that I was going to hold her to the letter, to the order, of the probation.” Can you talk about how this culture of “zero tolerance” is applied to Black girls, like Grace? And how have you seen racism, sexism and classism intersect in how Black girls are portrayed, especially in portraying them to be “a threat,” “delinquent,” or otherwise deserving of harsher punishments?
Morris: … Zero tolerance is an antiquated approach to young people who are experiencing life disruptions that place them in contact with the juvenile court and/or criminal legal system. Many researchers have found zero tolerance ineffective to the cultivation of safe, inclusive learning communities. I believe that schools should be locations for healing, not criminalization.
Jacobs: When one applies a zero tolerance analysis, they find fault with someone for failing to comply with the rules, without asking the very necessary questions of why the person didn’t comply and whether a reasonable person in the same circumstances would have been able to do so. Many students in Grace’s situation were not getting their work done in a timely way and the schools were making adjustments and allowances for that. … Research shows that Black girls, in particular, are viewed as being more mature, and needing less nurturing or support than their similarly aged white peers (it’s called adultification bias). This, combined with other stereotypes about Black girls, particularly that they are disruptive and defiant, yields a situation where the judge likely over-focused on her sense of Grace’s failure to comply, while under-focusing on why, during a pandemic, any student (not just Grace with her ADHD) might have trouble adjusting and getting her schoolwork done in a timely way.
Q: In a previous interview about Dr. Morris’s book, “PUSHOUT,” the discussion moves to the use of current and historical anecdotes from Black girls and women in order to “help us construct a better understanding of how Black girls are uniquely vulnerable to the marginalization that occurs in schools.” Can you tell us a bit about how Black girls are uniquely vulnerable to this? And what can be done about it?
Morris: Black girls are the only group of girls who experience over-representation across the spectrum of discipline (e.g., suspensions, arrests, corporal punishment, etc.) and at every educational level. Efforts to make schools locations (or conditions) for punishment are disrupting the ability of schools to actualize their function as locations for learning. The conflation between accountability and punishment is preventing the type of relationship-building and healing that lead to students feeling safe enough to learn. Our focus moving forward must be on the development of learning communities — virtual and in-person — that pull students in closer through counselors, volunteers, restorative practices, mindfulness, teacher professional development, parental networks and culturally responsive teaching and social emotional learning. Only through a robust continuum of alternatives to exclusionary discipline will we build schools that prepare our young people for the just and equitable society they are demanding in this moment.
Jacobs: Black girls are as or more likely to be stigmatized and/or disciplined because of perceptions about their behavior, dress or self-presentation. They are also likely to be seen as unruly or disrupted and inappropriately subjected to discipline, including detentions, suspensions and expulsion as a result. Thanks to the data compiled by the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education, and the work to lift up and respond to it undertaken during the Obama Administration, we can see the disproportionality in the amount of discipline Black girls receive in our public schools. As a result, many school systems have instituted anti-bias training for teachers and administrators and begun to better attend to the biases and stereotypes that lead to the disparate imposition of discipline on Black girls.
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