New Book Explores Solutions for Black and Brown Girls Disproportionately Disciplined at School

In Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls, Monique W. Morris centers the experience of these marginalized girls and highlights the actions of some educators and community members around the country who are making a positive difference in the students' lives.

When discussing the school-to-prison pipeline, people often focus on the impact on black boys. There is no doubt that is a critical issue in the educational system. Research shows that black boys were three times more likely to get suspended than their white counterparts—but black girls were six times more likely. In schools where corporal punishment is still legal, black boys were nearly twice as likely to be struck as white boys in the 2013–14 school year; black girls were more than three times as likely to be hit as white girls, according to The Civil Rights Project of UCLA.

Yet black girls are rarely part of the conversation, and never the crux of it.

Monique W. Morris

In her 2016 book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique W. Morris wrote about the lives of these girls—who are often misunderstood, judged more harshly, and hurt by very schools that are supposed to help them. She addressed the issues they face, and the impact of the system’s bias and disproportionate discipline.

Morris’s new Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls (The New Press, 2019), which publishes on August 27, is the continuation of the conversation Pushout started. This time, Morris’s book presents some solutions that are already working in schools and communities around the country.

“It tells us that obviously we can be innovative when we want, we can be intentional in our actions with girls,” Morris says. “When we are, we see some differences really play out. That is the whole purpose of Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues. When people say they want to do something but don’t put a series of actions behind it, we get nothing. But when people say that they want to be a part of building out new communities for girls of color, and with girls of color, and they actually do the work, then we see some really promising outcomes, and we see a deeper interrogation of some of the critical issues….

“This was the effort to place at the center the girls who are impacted by Pushout then think about, and explore with the reader and communities I’ve been visiting, how we then make change in those spaces. Because I have seen it happen, I definitely believe it can be done.”

SLJ spoke further with Morris about these issues.

Why do people still not talk about black and brown girls when discussing the disparity in discipline in education and the school-to-prison pipeline?

The conversation about the disparity tends to be an academic one, so folks in the community, in practice, don’t necessarily spend a lot of time processing what that means for the disproportionate number of black and brown girls who are experiencing this condition. We know black girls across the board experience exclusionary discipline disproportionately, but we’re seeing a growing number of Latinas also experiencing exclusionary discipline.

A number of the black girls are also black girls who racially identify as being black in combination with another ethnic group. We see this way in which black and brown girls are together in this space where they are experiencing these harsh conditions, and yet the community has yet to respond fully to those conditions and be in partnership with them around the solutions.

Is there training available for educators who want to create the spaces and culture at school to center these girls and help them?

There are academics and others who have taken on this work. Dr. Zaretta Hammond is one who has built a framework [not only] around culturally responsive teaching but also [with] a way to intentionally engage around those who are culturally and linguistically diverse. The National Black Women’s Justice Institute, which is the organization I cofounded, does a bit of technical assistance in the development of innovative responses and has done some work in that arena. And there are a series of sort of popcorn programs that have existed or are being developed in various places around the country.

There hasn’t been this robust way in which girls have been at the center of some of these school-based practices. Even in restorative justice programming—which we know to be effective interventions around student behavior and engagement—there tend to be spaces where unless it’s done with intention, black and brown girls, but particularly black girls, are disproportionately not involved in the restorative alternatives and instead still receive the exclusionary discipline.

I try to encourage educators to really think about the opportunities to co-construct when they’re doing this kind of work around school climate or building out codes of conduct. Have conversations with students and parents around what needs to be in place for them to feel safe, really think about the development of their continuum of responses to student behaviors, not just about things in a reactionary way, but think about how we can build communities together.

This is a practice that people do out of schools and something we talk about in schools but don’t often fully practice….I try to write and talk about things that I have witnessed and researched, that we’ve been reviewing, that can encourage educators to think very explicitly about how to measure what is occurring with girls in their school space, but also how to respond to girls who do demonstrate that they are being harmed by some of these conditions.

You write a lot about girls who come to school already having experienced trauma, but it sounds like in some cases, the educational system and their schools could be causing an initial trauma. Have you seen that?

What I try to do with my work really is to operate under the assumption that most people who become educators and run schools believe in the promise of children and are not intentionally creating conditions that are harmful for them. That’s why I spend a lot of time talking about the broader set of conditions. For the most part, I think educators are thinking that their activities are not harmful, but when we talk about what their activities are in a greater context of harm—especially in today’s climate, which is just so abusive—that the things that might have been perceived as “normal” in the education space become harmful when you add this additional element.

Things like corporal punishment, [which] used to be considered normal. Things like suspension, where people might say, “Of course you suspend.” No, you don’t, because when you do, we know now that is something that causes greater harm.

We think about how we operate in society and how we really want to move as educators and those involved in educational practices, we’re really trying to think about how to normalize this culture of co-construction, how to normalize this culture of engagement, how to normalize a culture of being responsive to a host of issues that might not have been seen officially as written in the job description but were always a part of being an educator in the United States—with black and brown kids and especially with black and brown girls.

This is one of those things that can paralyze people with the size and scope of the problem. Many might even dismiss the older girls as already lost. You obviously think we can improve the lives and education of black and brown girls of all ages and turn around this systemic problem.

I do think we can turn it around. It just requires our intention, first and foremost, then obviously the policy, the practices, and the conditions that allow for black and brown girls to be at the center of an inquiry and center of practices where they have not historically been.

That’s one of the reasons I centered this work in a narrative around the blues. Of course, there are ways in which this genre has been typically identified as [by] men, as being mostly about drama and sorrow. But embedded in a lot of this is a beauty about community, is a truth-telling that I think is critical, particularly at this moment.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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