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"Education and The Caged Bird: Black Girls, School Pushout and the Juvenile Court School,"

by Monique Morris November/December 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

The struggle to remove the vestiges of segregation from U.S. schools often under-theorizes the separate and unequal nature of education for youth in secure confinement, and the potential relationship between these facilities and the school push-out that occurs among youth of color in district and community schools. Nationwide, racially disproportionate rates of juvenile confinement have produced juvenile court schools that are locations for intense, involuntary racial isolation. In these learning environments are children with considerable challenges, some that render current pedagogy and practice as ineffective. According to the National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Children and Youth who are Neglected, Delinquent, or At-Risk (NDTAC), at least one-third of youth in juvenile court schools have been diagnosed with a learning disability. Still, juvenile court schools have “one of the worst records of adhering to federal special education requirements,” according to Joseph Gagnon and his colleagues at the University of Florida, who discovered that juvenile correctional schools are often targets for class action lawsuits as a result of their inadequate provision of special education services.

In 2009, Gagnon and his colleagues also found that juvenile court schools often operate in a manner inconsistent with state curricula. According to their study, 80% of schools nationwide were accredited by their State Department of Education, only 66% of juvenile court schools used a state or local education curriculum, and approximately 50% of juvenile court school leaders believed that grade-level expectations should not be applied to youth in these facilities. Gagnon’s findings are supported by an NDTAC survey of youth educated in correctional and detention facilities, which found that only half of the students in juvenile court schools perform in reading and math at grade level, and that only 46% considered the education that they received in their correctional facility to be of good quality. Overall, a set of rigorous educational best practices with respect to detained children of color, or to culturally and linguistically diverse youth in confinement, is limited.

Black Girls and the Quest for Dignity in Juvenile Court Schools

Nationwide, Black girls represent the fastest growing population in residential placement and secure confinement; and Black girls have experienced the greatest increases in the rate of exclusionary discipline (e.g., out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, etc.). While UCLA researchers found that patterns of exclusionary discipline are similar between Black females and Black males, studies have shown that Black female disengagement from school is also a function of intersecting structures of inequality associated with their status as girls. For Black girls, exclusionary school responses may be informed by historically constructed, stereotypical memes that negatively impact and reflect public perceptions about Black femininity.

While academic underperformance and zero tolerance policies are certainly critical components of the pathways to confinement for Black girls, a closer examination reveals that Black girls may also be criminalized for qualities that have been long associated with their survival. For example, to be “loud” or “defiant”—two “infractions” that may lead to the use of exclusionary discipline in schools—are qualities that have historically underscored Black female resilience to the combined effects of racism, sexism, and classism. Previous research has found that Black girls who are depicted as “loud, defiant, and precocious” are often most vulnerable to reprimand by their teachers for subjectively being determined “unladylike.” Assignments of this nature affect not only these girls’ ability to complete school in their communities; they may also affect their marginalization from juvenile court schools.

Case Study: Confined Black Girls in Northern California

According to the California Department of Education, more than 42,000 youth were educated in “juvenile court schools” (i.e., schools in correctional and detention facilities) in 2012—a disproportionate number of them Black girls. Statewide, Black girls experience the highest rates of exclusionary discipline and dropout among girls in secondary schools. In the state’s 10 largest districts by enrollment, Black females experience school suspension at rates that far surpass their female counterparts of other racial and ethnic groups. Still, little has been shared about the educational histories and experiences of these girls, inside of the state’s juvenile correctional facilities or out in the community.

In response to this gap, I conducted an exploratory, phenomenological, action research study that examined the self-identified educational experiences of Northern California’s Black girls in confinement, including their self-identified educational strengths and weaknesses. Using in-depth interviews and descriptive data analysis, among other research activities, this investigation uncovered several conditions that should inform future research on the role of juvenile court schools in the school push-out of Black girls.

The study revealed the following about the educational experiences of confined Black girls in Northern California:
They value their education. Ninety-four percent of the girls in this study reported that their education is either very important or important to them. Additionally, 93% of these girls reported that their education was important or very important to their parents or guardians, where applicable.
They have a history of exclusionary discipline in their district schools. Eighty-eight percent of the girls in this study had a history of suspensions and 65% had a history of expulsions from non-juvenile court schools. Among those with a history of exclusionary discipline, half of them cited elementary school as their earliest experience with suspensions or expulsions.
They experience exclusionary discipline while in detention, too. Almost all (94%) of the girls in this study had been removed from a juvenile court school classroom at some point during their stay. Among those girls, one-third believed that it was because they simply asked the teacher a question. Two-thirds reported that their removal from the classroom was the result of “talking back” to the teacher—but in each case, the student felt she was responding to an unprompted, negative comment made by the teacher (e.g., one participant recalled, “she called me retarded in front of the class…I have a learning disability”).
They have missed a lot of school. The majority (82%) of the girls in the study reported having recently missed significant periods (at least 2 weeks) of instruction. Among these girls who missed significant portions of school, 36% had removed their court-ordered electronic monitoring device and/or were “on the run” and avoiding a warrant for their arrest; and 14% cited prostitution as a major deterrence from attending or participating in school. For 18% of the girls, being the mother of a child under the age of three years old presented obstacles to attending school. Over half (57%) reported that they had been expelled from or had “dropped out” of school.
They have drug use and/or dependency issues. Almost all of the girls in this study (94%) admitted to a history of smoking marijuana, and 65% of them reported a history of using marijuana at school or just before going to school. Among these girls, 64% reported that their teachers knew they were high in class. Among the girls who admitted to being intoxicated in school, 36% reported that they were sent home and 64% reported that there was no action taken by the school. Only 18% were referred to a drug and alcohol awareness class.
Many of them lack confidence in their juvenile court school teachers. More than half (59%) of the girls in this study reported a lack of confidence in the teaching ability and/or commitment of at least one instructor in their juvenile court school. Among the girls in this study, 47% perceived that a teacher in their juvenile court school had routinely refused to answer their specific questions about the material they were learning.
They are not engaged by the curriculum in juvenile court schools. The majority (75%) of the girls in this study found the schoolwork to be too easy. A majority of the participants (63%) also perceived the level of the coursework to be below their grade level.
Their school credits do not transfer seamlessly between juvenile court schools and district schools. Most (82%) of the girls in this study reported a prior experience in the juvenile court school in which this study took place. Among these girls, 57% believed that the credits they earned while in detention had not transferred appropriately to their district school, and 86% were currently unsure of their credit status.
They have goals, but they don’t know how to reach them. The majority (88%) of the girls in this study had some idea of their future occupational goals, with a third of them indicating that they would like to be a staff counselor at the juvenile hall. However, the majority of the girls in this study (73%) felt that their education was not preparing them for their future goals.
Including juvenile court schools in equity and excellence campaigns.

While not generalizable, the findings of this study show where future research and advocacy efforts might better interrogate how girls are affected by the inferior and hyper-punitive nature of their racially-isolated learning environments behind bars. Notwithstanding their status as “juvenile delinquents” with significant histories of victimization, these girls tended to find a potentially redemptive quality in education. In short, they understood the value of a quality education, even if it was not being offered to them. Though most of the girls in this study did not consider their juvenile court school to be a model learning environment, they did generally agree that these schools occupy an important space along a learning continuum that has underserved them. The poor quality of instruction, coupled with the racial isolation, punitive climate, and inability to successfully match the credits they had earned while in detention with their district school credit structure sent powerful cues. These tangible, symbolic, verbal and non-verbal cues communicate the tenuous status of their perceived rehabilitative quality. For many of these girls, the figurative lacerations from bureaucratic and ethical failures may leave lasting marks.

While our ultimate goal is to prevent more girls from being educated in correctional facilities, juvenile court schools should be an important rehabilitative structure for detained girls. These schools should be included in the conversation about equity not only because they are structurally inferior and failing to interrupt student pathways to dropout or push-out. They should be included because there is a moral and legal obligation to improve the quality of education for all youth—even those who are in trouble with the law. We must continue to explore ways to make access to quality education in these facilities more equitable, while improving the rigor of the curricula, such that it is trauma-informed and culturally competent. We must also examine ways to facilitate a seamless re-entry of these girls back into their district schools and home communities.

Thurgood Marshall wrote in Procunier v. Martinez (1974), “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded.” It is a long-standing American value that education is a potential tool by which to restructure the social hierarchies present in society and elevate the conditions of historically oppressed peoples. However, current trends in the administration and function of the juvenile court school may actually exacerbate many of the pre-existing conflicts between Black girls and teachers and/or the structure of learning environments to which confined Black girls are routinely subjected. If continued, the limitations and challenges of these conditions may serve to concretize and nullify the opportunities for improved associations between Black girls, school and academic performance—which is antithetical to the stated educational goal of the juvenile court school. However, if we can improve the accountability and performance of these schools, alongside their district counterparts, we will inevitably move toward a more comprehensive approach to reducing the impact of policies and practices along the education continuum that render girls criminalized and pushed out of school. We will, in essence, begin the process of maintaining her human quality—an essential component of her successful rehabilitation and re-engagement as a productive member of our communities.

Monique Morris s the co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute (black in Oakland, Calif. and author of Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century (The New Press, January 2014).

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