“School is not a place for Black girls to be silenced, overpoliced and criminalized; we should not be oppressed anywhere. When Black girls are criminalized by their schools, excluded by their peers, profiled by teachers, and criminalized by police, they are robbed of their self worth. Neglecting and severely punishing Black girls for “having an attitude” and “being aggressive,” and presence of policing are root causes of the school-to-prison pipeline. When Black girls are criminalized by their schools, excluded by their peers and profiled by their teachers, they are robbed of their self-worth and their desire to thrive,” – Stephanie Younger
By Stephanie Younger •
In 2006, my family moved out of Charlottesville to attend school in Henrico, county outside of Richmond, Virginia. Throughout the past 12 years that I’ve lived here, I spent most of elementary school in HCPS, spent 3 years in private school, and returned to HCPS for part of middle school. My experiences in Henrico County have influenced why I stand for the abolition of youth prisons is influenced by my experiences in school.
Many adults depicted me as an aggressor – including a white woman who accused me of starting a fight when I accidentally bumped into my classmate and my kindergarten teacher who brought me to the principal’s office when I had a panic attack. My first grade teacher humiliated me in front of my class and tried to do everything in her power to push out of school when I pulled out a dictionary during a spelling test. I was so consumed in the self-hatred I internalized stemming from being unaccepted by many of my white peers, being profiled by my teachers – which was painful, in addition to working twice as hard to excel and thrive in school.
I often experienced adultification and was wrongfully punished for the same actions my white counterparts engaged in. “They treat you that way because they want to be your friend,” my teachers at a private school often said when I looked to them during conflicts with peers. In the fourth grade, I recall being punished for playing in the hallway with a white girl – whose idea it was – while she got away with it. Three teachers accused me of threatening the same white girl when we didn’t get along.
After I stopped attending school in Henrico County, I faced criminalization from adults, including “mental health professionals,” family members, and had my own experiences with police during a mental health crises. Although my experiences aren’t unique, they aren’t without privilege, which is why I have spent these past few years – when I would be in high school – dedicating myself to the abolition of youth prisons, believing that it’s significant to center other Black youth who experience criminalization and incarceration of Black youth.
India Williams, 16, who attends Richmond Public Schools, remembers being overpoliced and checked for drugs even though she isn’t involved, suspensions, and heavy surveillance in the school she attended. “[Martin Luther King] middle is set up like a jail. We were locked in classrooms, escorted to the restroom. The cafeteria was always surrounded by security guards,” she says.
“It always bothered me, but one day, on the way to class, I knocked on the door, a security guard said I was “being aggressive”…the door is really heavy and you can barely hear when people knock. He was closer to me and said stop, I stopped. He came closer and closer, so I decided to move and say, ‘Buck on me, and watch me drop you like a man.’…I received a letter saying I was suspended for five days.”
When India organized a walkout much earlier this year, she and her classmates were threatened with suspension, while many other students got to participate in this act of solidarity without the experience of being criminalized for defending their community. “Security guards created a barrier so we couldn’t get out. Teachers told us it was because [they thought] we didn’t really care about the cause.” She states, “My school is across the street, and surrounded by areas that have gun violence.” The following week, India organized another walkout, this time, with faculty involved.
“Teachers helped us make signs, gave tips and more, and a couple of teachers were even willing to risk their jobs. That day security pushed us, yelled, threatened and took our phones. We remained silent for seventeen minutes and then went back to class. Teachers called us “stupid” for doing what we did, but they also don’t deal with the amount of gun violence we deal with within our community.”
India tells me her that experience with heavy policing, surveillance, criminalization in her school is why she stands for human rights and Black lives. “I have become more aware of the other injustices in The RPS school system and I started using my voice. I stand up for myself and other kids done wrong.”
In Kimberle Crenshaw’s theory of “intersectionality,” she regards the significance of including the voices of Black girls in conversations pertaining to the school-to-prison pipeline. While it’s important to regard how Black boys are affected by racism in schools, it’s critical to acknowledge how this affects Black girls in a state that nationally has the most occurrences of the school-to-prison pipeline—Virginia. According to the African American Policy Forum, Black girls were six times more likely to be suspended, while Black boys were three times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts in the 2011-2012 school year. When Black girls defend themselves, they are labeled as “aggressive,” and robbed of their innocence at a very young age. In 2017, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality released a report entitled “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” The report stated that Black girls experience adultification, meaning that adults “view Black girls as less innocent and believe that they need less nurturing, protection and comfort than white girls.”
School is not a place for Black girls to be silenced, overpoliced and criminalized; we should not be oppressed anywhere. When Black girls are criminalized by their schools, excluded by their peers, profiled by teachers, and criminalized by police, they are robbed of their self worth. Neglecting and severely punishing Black girls for “having an attitude” and “being aggressive,” and presence of policing are root causes of the school-to-prison pipeline. When Black girls are criminalized by their schools, excluded by their peers and profiled by their teachers, they are robbed of their self-worth and their desire to thrive.
“Guide us, don’t criminalize us!”
A protest chant created by the Black Youth of Performing Statistics
Stephanie Younger is a 16-year-old who advocates for womanism and abolition of youth prisons.