Photo Courtesy of Mark Strandquist/Performing Statistics

By Stephanie Younger •

My advocacy for juvenile justice reform is influenced by the discrimination I experienced in school. Feeling unaccepted by my white peers and profiled by my teachers, I quickly internalized the notion that my Blackness wasn’t desirable. I was so consumed in the self-hatred I internalized that I lost my desire to thrive and excel in school. In the second grade, I remember being called a monkey on the playground. My peers would gather behind me to touch my braids without permission, and exclaim how gross and ugly my hair was. My reserved personality came from the experience of being branded as “aggressive” when I would defend myself.

While I had positive experiences with some teachers, I often experienced adultification and was wrongfully punished for the same actions my white counterparts engaged in, being the only Black child in the whole grade. In the fourth grade, my teachers would tell me, “They treat you that way because they like you and want to be your friend,” when I wasn’t treated fairly. That same school year, I recall being exclusively punished for playing in the hallway with a white girl who wasn’t punished. Around that time, three white teachers accused me of threatening the same white girl for not getting along. I recall being accused of lying when I told an after-school counselor that a white student was trying to teach me/call me the N-word. On that school’s robotics team, my coaches showered my non-Black teammates with positive attention, while I only obtained negative attention or no attention at all. When I was the only Black student to have earned a school honor in the fifth grade, my picture was excluded from being placed on the wall. In the sixth grade, one teacher tried to prevent me from completing work required to move up to the next grade.

My encounters with discrimination are not unique, but my experience as a Black girl in school is not without privilege, and differs from the experiences of many other Black girls across the country. Now that I am homeschooled and almost finished with high school, I want other Black youth to have the support I did when I was experiencing racism in school, so I began campaigning, lobbying and recently organized and led a march with my friends at RISE For Youth, “a nonpartisan campaign in support of alternatives to youth incarceration.”

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 shockingly 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.”  

Photo Courtesy of Mark Strandquist/Performing Statistics

16-year-old India Williams attends Richmond Public Schools and has been criminalized for defending her community. She remembers being overpoliced as early as middle school and checked for drugs even though she isn’t involved.

“MLK middle is set up like a jail. We were locked in classrooms, escorted to the restroom, the cafeteria 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 ‘Buck on me, and watch me drop you like a man.’…I received a letter saying I was suspended for five days.”

India has even been silenced for her work in the community. When she organized a walkout, she and her classmates were threatened with suspension, while every many other schools got to participate in this act of solidarity. “Security guards created a barrier so we couldn’t get out. Teachers told us it was because “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. 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 within our community.”

India tells me her experience with being criminalized by her school has influenced her advocacy for justice, human rights, and Black lives, saying, “I’ve become more aware of the other injustices in The RPS school system & I started using my voice. I stand up for myself and other kids done wrong.”

School is not a place for Black girls to be silenced, overpoliced and criminalized. When Black girls are criminalized by their schools and excluded by their peers and profiled by their teachers, they are robbed of their self-worth and their desire to thrive. Neglecting and severely punishing Black girls for “having an attitude” and “being aggressive” are the root causes of the school-to-prison pipeline. 

“Guide us, don’t criminalize us” – A protest chant created by the young people of Performing Statistics

Stephanie Younger is a 16-year-old student, organizer and writer who advocates for womanism, diversity in S.T.E.A.M, the abolition of youth prisons and gun violence prevention.

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