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As African-American girls face harsher discipline in school, local educators address the issue

Dr. Sheandra Brown and Kristy Jackson are two local educators who recently spoke at The Crooked Room Conference at UMSL, which focused on improving outcomes for African American girls and women in education.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Sheandra Brown and Kristy Jackson are two local educators who recently spoke at The Crooked Room Conference at UMSL, which focused on improving outcomes for African-American girls and women in education.

There’s a growing body of research that shows African-American girls are punished in school at rates much higher than girls of any other race.

A recent report from the National Women’s Law Center shows that African-American girls are 5.5 times more likely than white girls to be suspended from school. In addition to such punitive actions, African-American girls also face other structural barriers to achievement in schools, such as being considered aggressive or not finding role models to emulate in the school system.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, contributor Geri Mitchell spoke with two local educators who recently participated in a conference at UMSL to address the issues African-American girls face in schools. It was called “The Crooked Room Conference.”

The “Crooked Room” is a reference to Melissa Harris-Perry’s theory that women of color are often so defined by stereotypes and that it makes it difficult to succeed outside of them. More on that theory here.

Dr. Sheandra Brown is an instructional coach in the Hazelwood School District and wrote her dissertation on teaching high-achieving black children. She said that although African-American girls are often considered pushy or confrontational, those traits could also be considered early signs of leadership abilities.

Kristy Jackson is the district coordinator of gifted education in the Webster Groves School District and created a program called Girls Lead and Make Moves, an entrepreneurship program designed to close the gender and education opportunity gap for young women of color.

Jackson said that the experience of African-American girls in education is difficult because almost every culture has a “cultural map” to follow, but women of color are often punished for following their map.

“We can be described as loud or you could call it verbose,” Jackson said. “Turn that thing around, we are who we are. It is about reframing the perspective and understanding that power.”

She also said that unfair punishment of African-American girls in schools has occurred for a long time.

“The settings are changing and the awareness is different,” Jackson said. “We have social media and technology where we are able to document and respond to these issues. It goes back to ‘who gets to tell that story? Who gets to write the rules?’ When we’re told to lean in and be bossy girls, it is okay, because someone can show that narrative as an example. We are in those positions where our power is given or taken and we’re not able to respond in the way we could historically with community support.”

Brown said that relationship building is key for connecting with girls of color in schools and creating mentorship opportunities for them where they will be understood instead of being defined by stereotypes.

“Colleges of education and universities have to be able to do a better job of training teachers when they will go into school districts that have large populations of black children,” Brown said. “It is so different and kids come to us with so much emotional baggage. It’s like they’ve been out in war and you don’t have the understanding of how to support those children.”

Brown pointed to the example of a cultural competency program in the Hazelwood School District that helps teachers connect with students regardless of their background. Jackson also mentioned a social justice training that is available for teachers and staff at Webster.

Listen to the full discussion, as Brown and Jackson also tackle the role of in-school and out-of-school suspensions as well as the toll “Zero Tolerance” policies take on students when it comes to harsh discipline and event arrest:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.