Nearly 40 years ago, a metaphor or fable, if you will, about “upstream-downstream” was created by healthcare practitioners to better explain and argue for the value of preventative health care measures. The fable describes a group of community members standing near a river who witness someone drowning. Some of the community members jump into the water and pull the person to the shore. As soon as they do so, they try to resuscitate her.
Then, another drowning person floats down the river; and as the community recruits more lifesavers, still more drowning people float past them. Eventually, someone thinks to go upstream to find out what was causing so many people to be pulled into the river. More recently this fable has been used as a metaphor for those lost in the midst of a failing educational system in an effort to get Americans to look upstream to see the sources of the problem; and to query why so many of the failing students are people of color.
If we think of those upstream determinants as structural barriers, what happens when girls of color are pushed out of educational systems that are supposed to support them? How can a path be cleared for them that serves as a bridge to economic stability, and optimal life outcomes? In a new report, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Over-policed and Under-protected the African American Policy Forum examines these concerns in New York City and Boston. The report breaks down data by race and gender, and its findings are disturbing. In New York, for instance, in the 2011-2012 school year, Black girls were disciplined 10 times more often than White girls. In fact, in some settings Black girls were found to face a greater racialized risk of unjust punishment than Black boys.
Girls of color are often more harshly punished for non-violent offenses that educators have coded as “disruptive” and “disrespectful.” They are sometimes punished for behavior that would be viewed as innocuous for boys. For instance, one girl interviewed for the report explained: “Some of the girls did have this sense of frustration, that there is a different standard for girls’ behavior versus boys. So boys seem to just get more looking the other way, or more tolerance of even the exact same behavior.”
Girls of color are also experiencing multiple forms of violence before they even walk through the school doors. They are ingesting trauma for breakfast. It’s embedded in the pressures of serving as quasi-mothers for younger family members, enduring physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuse at home, and leaving their homes with no safe route to school in neighborhoods that have literally been disinvested in by city and corporate officials.
Once they reach their schools, they often find the buildings and classrooms to be unsafe. Many schools that serve low-income youth and students of color have permanent metal detectors. These schools are coded as “dropout factories,” known for graduating less than 60 percent of the 9th graders who attend them. In Black Girls Matter, the authors found that girls of color reported facing discriminatory and abusive comments from school security officers, and intrusive body searches as they entered the school and in the hallways. Rather than fostering a safe space these conditions at times made some girls avoid school altogether. Simply put, school push-out for girls of color can result in a kind of slow-death, and the absence of a genuine opportunity to succeed. Rather than serving to prevent failure down the road it is more likely to produce failure.
So, as we travel back upstream to see what is going on in our public schools, let’s do so armed with more data – both qualitative and quantitative – so that we can gain a better understanding of the roots of the problems that girls of color face. Let’s call for public policies and innovative programs tailored to their needs; and let’s acknowledge that when girls are pushed out of school lasting effects spill over into every aspect of their lives. Let’s lend a hand before the girls are forced to fend for themselves in treacherous waters.
LeConte Dill is an assistant professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate School of Public Health, teaching and conducting community-engaged research related to urban health, positive youth development and qualitative methods.