At Some Schools, Discipline for Girls Differs Between Race

At Some Schools, Discipline for Girls Differs Between Race
© Kevin Liles for The New York Times Mikia Hutchings, 12, whose misbehavior at school led to a juvenile criminal case, and her lawyer, Michael J. Tafelski, waiting for a meeting held last month by a Georgia state committee studying school discipline.

To hear Mikia Hutchings speak, one must lean in close as her voice barely rises above a whisper. In report cards, her teachers describe the 12-year-old as “very focused,” someone who follows the rules and stays on task. So it was a surprise for her grandmother when Mikia and a friend got into trouble for writing graffiti on the walls of a gym bathroom at Dutchtown Middle School in Henry County last year.

Even more of a surprise was the penalty after her family disputed the role she was accused of playing in the vandalism and said it could not pay about $100 in restitution. While both students were suspended from school for a few days, Mikia had to face a school disciplinary hearing and, a few weeks later, a visit by a uniformed officer from the local Sheriff’s Department, who served her grandmother with papers accusing Mikia of a trespassing misdemeanor and, potentially, a felony.

As part of an agreement with the state to have the charges dismissed in juvenile court, Mikia admitted to the allegations of criminal trespassing. Mikia, who is African-American, spent her summer on probation, under a 7 p.m. curfew, and had to complete 16 hours of community service in addition to writing an apology letter to a student whose sneakers were defaced in the incident.

Her friend, who is white, was let go after her parents paid restitution.

For all the attention placed on problems that black boys face in terms of school discipline and criminal justice, there is increasing focus on the way those issues affect black girls as well.

Data from the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education shows that from 2011 to 2012, black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12 percent, compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls and more than girls of any other race or ethnicity. In Georgia, the ratio of black girls receiving suspensions in the same period compared with white girls is 5 to 1, and in Henry County, that ratio is 2.3 to 1, said J D Hardin, the spokesman for the county’s school district. And researchers say that within minority groups, darker-skinned girls are disciplined more harshly than light-skinned ones.

Michael J. Tafelski, an attorney from the Georgia Legal Services Program who represented Mikia in the school disciplinary hearing, and advocates for students say the punishment Mikia faced was an example of racial disparities in school discipline.

In response to the actions taken against Mikia, Mr. Tafelski said his office had filed a complaint with the Department of Justice claiming racial discrimination and a violation of the Civil Rights Act. “I’ve never had a white kid call me for representation in Henry County,” Mr. Tafelski said.

“What kid needs to be having a conversation with a lawyer about the right to remain silent?” he said. “White kids don’t have those conversations; black kids do.”

According to Mikia, her only offense was writing the word “Hi” on a bathroom stall door while her friend scribbled the rest of the graffiti. “I only wrote one word and I had to do all that,” Mikia said in a recent interview. “It isn’t fair.”

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Source: The New York Times | TANZINA VEGA

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