16-25 Segment 2: Pushed Out of School

jail cells with the doors closed at a histororic idaho prison


Many school-aged children in the U.S. end up in juvenile detention or expelled from school for offenses ranging from arriving late to breaking the dress code to fighting in the hallway. Once “pushed out” from school, these children are often headed down the road to a life of poverty and more serious crimes. A good portion of these kids are African-American girls who, our guest says, are unfairly targeted for discipline because of a misunderstanding of their behavior. We discuss this phenomenon and also talk to a professor who has studied the effect that extremely strict school rules have on the students and the teachers who are made to enforce them.

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  • Dr. Monique Morris, President and Co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and author of the book, Pushout: The criminalization of Black girls in schools
  • Meira Levinson, Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Co-editor with Jacob Fay of the book, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics:Cases and commentaries.

Links for more info:

Pushed Out Of School

Marty Peterson: In our previous segment, our guests discussed the punitive nature of the American justice system and the way some juvenile offenders are tried and incarcerated as adults for serious crimes. But many children under 17 or 18 years of age are incarcerated in juvenile facilities for lesser offenses, and this can affect them for the rest of their lives. Dr. Monique Morris says we need to make changes to the way we send kids to detention and in the juvenile facilities themselves. Her research deals with Black girls – a demographic that is targeted for detention in greater numbers than other girls due to a number of issues that peg them as troublemakers. Morris is the president and co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and author of the book, Pushout: The criminalization of Black girls in schools. Morris says that even though Black girls make up only 16-percent of girls in school attendance, they constitute a third of the girls referred to law enforcement and about a third of school-related arrests…

Dr. Monique Morris: There are multiple factors that contribute to the disparities that we see in arrest rates among Black girls in schools. You know, overall, Black girls are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and among the pathways to this criminalization I explore with respect to education systems; the ways in which adults misread and misunderstand behaviors of Black girls; differential handling of cases that involve Black girls, and a host of criminalizing, highly-punitive policies in schools that leave little room for error when children make mistakes.

Peterson: Those behaviors are misread not only by White teachers and administrators, but also by African-Americans in those positions. Morris says that in our society, we don’t discuss race, gender and sex very well, and this leads to Black girls’ behaviors being perceived differently than those of other girls…

Morris: When Black girls are engaged in conversation about how school-based adults engage them, they consistently tell stories of differential treatment, of having conversations in the hallway and being perceived as loud and aggressive. There have been research studies that have examined this and found that there is a consistent way in which adults read the behaviors of Black girls as worthy of more punishment than the behaviors of White girls. And a lot of it has to do with how their volume is perceived, how their body language is interpreted and much of that has to do with the implicit biases that all of us are affected by.

Peterson: Morris says that most of the Black girls who end up in juvenile detention were victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse growing up, and this trauma plays a big role in how they perceive the world and behave in it…

Morris: Many of the narratives that I talk about in the book and that I work with regularly really center victimization. And one of the things I hope people understand about girls who are in contact with the criminal and juvenile legal system is that there is a centrality of trauma. Not that it’s an additional factor – not that these are girls who just have attitude problems – that there is a very consistent thread of traumatic engagement in their lives, traumatic events that have shaped their understanding about life and how you respond to it, that we have not really fully considered in our responses to their behaviors, to our responses to who they are.

Peterson: She says that our response to these girls is to exacerbate their trauma by institutionalizing them in places that do not have staff trained to help them with their emotional needs. Morris adds that they also don’t have the educational resources to provide the schooling these girls need to help them get back on track and carve out a future for themselves on the outside…

Morris: What’s found is that because this education happens in the hyper-punitive learning environments, that the discipline only gets worse for Black girls, where they will describe situations like being kicked out of class for asking questions; or feeling that the material is not rigorous enough for them to feel that it’s worth their time and engagement, or engaging with educators in these facilities who don’t necessarily take their education seriously. When they do think about girls they tend to think about them not in a way that’s constructive for their development. The programs and services that are offered are often etiquette courses, or their about shifting behaviors so that girls perform femininity in a way that larger society may digest more easily rather than thinking about how we develop critical thinking skills among these girls and get the relationship that they need to have with school repaired, so they can actually make a difference in their life trajectory and life circumstances.

Peterson: Morris says she’d like to see girls in detention receive a solid education as well as the help they need to put their lives on track so they don’t end up incarcerated again…

Morris: The way in which we respond to them needs to be trauma-informed and healing-informed to the extent that the girls are engaged in opportunities to have counseling, opportunities to deconstruct the oppression that they’ve experienced, opportunities for them to reconnect with school and to learn in ways that is most responsive to their learning styles. Not handed a packet and told to read the instructions and have very minimal engagement. Facilities that do the best job of responding to the needs of girls are those that have very rigorous requirements of the educators who are working with these kids, who have additional training to engage them around working with a population that is highly transient and has experienced multiple forms of trauma and abuse, and it requires a special skill set. I don’t believe that there are throwaway children, and yet that’s how our detention facilities largely engage with girls.

Peterson: Some people say that if community schools were “zero-tolerance schools” that this would keep kids from ending up in juvenile detention. Meira Levinson says that this has worked in some schools – but at a high price for both students and teachers. Levinson is a professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-editor with Jacob Fay of the book, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and commentaries. She writes about a school with zero-tolerance policies where students can be suspended for infractions ranging from fights, to theft to swearing to showing up late for class. In the school she outlines, the teachers were also subjected to zero tolerance – they were contractually obligated to report students or face losing their jobs if they didn’t. Levinson sees a basic unfairness between schools that enforce these policies and those that don’t, and the negative effects being “pushed out” can cause…

Meira Levinson: Zero tolerance is far more likely to be present in schools that serve predominately low-income kids and predominately kids of color than it is to be found in schools that serve mostly upper-income kids and/or mostly White kids. And where you have zero tolerance you have much higher rates, of course, of not just detention but also suspension and expulsion. So not only is this inequitably happening to low-income kids of color, but also we have very, very clear evidence that children who are suspended from school even once have higher likelihood of other kinds of involvement with, say, the juvenile justice and eventually the adult justice system than do those kids who were not suspended even once.

Peterson: Levinson suggests that schools not concentrate on “rules” but “procedures” and “culture” when dealing with behavior and discipline…

Levinson: There are many different rules that might be perfectly appropriate that vary quite significantly from each other from school to school. What really is important more than the specific rule that you adopt, is the procedure and culture that you have in the school where the child and the child’s family and the other children who are affected by the misbehavior all understand them, see them as being legitimate and just, and recognize the ways in which they are trying to help the perpetrator or the student who committed the infraction get back on track and do the right thing rather than positioning the kid as “the troublemaker,” “the bad kids”  – “Oh yes, there he goes again and he’s going to get in trouble again.”

Peterson: She also says that some schools are successfully using “restorative justice” programs that bring the perpetrator, the people he or she has harmed and the community in general together to discuss what can be done to make the community whole again. Finally, Levinson says that teachers should not be put in the position of reporting students for minor infractions…or reporting on fellow teachers…

Levinson: Not only are they in the position of exercising surveillance on students, but the adults are actually now in the position of exercising surveillance on each other. That when you have zero tolerance and this culture, this sort of punitive culture of surveillance, that also then affects the relationship among the adults in the building – say between the teachers themselves. That actually ends up creating a far different environment, collegial environment – or non-collegial environment – than you might wish for in a school that should be focused on learning and on helping all children thrive and grow.

Peterson: We’ve only scratched the surface of the challenges that children who cross paths with the justice system and school suspension. For a more in-depth study of the issues that Black girls face in schools and detention, you can pick up Dr. Monique Morris’s book, Pushout and visit her website at MoniqueWMorris.me. And to read up on the challenges the educational system faces and how teachers and schools might address them, you can pick up Meira Levinson’s book, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.