Why are young black girls 'criminalized' at school? A new documentary, 'Pushout,' explores

Monique W. Morris is the writer and executive producer of a powerful new documentary, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schoolsand its recent premiere on PBS stations couldn’t have come at a better moment, she says. “For so long, black girls were really left out of the conversation about justice,” Morris tells Yahoo Life, referring to George Floyd protests that have been ignited across the country and around the world.

The documentary, which first aired in March, is based on Morris’ book of the same name. It examines education’s revolving door into the juvenile justice system, mainstream society’s perception of black girls and what it will take to make certain that vulnerable youth are not seen as disposable —offering clear and practical guidelines for how educators, law enforcement and other adults should interact with black girls.

Morris explains to Yahoo Life that Pushout is “an exploration of the policies, practices, conditions, and the prevailing consciousness that impacts what renders black girls vulnerable to future contact with the juvenile court and criminal legal system. It is a way to reframe what is happening in our schools, such that we see black girls differently.”

Studies have shown that African American girls are the fastest-growing population in the juvenile justice system and the only group of girls disproportionately experiencing harsh discipline at every educational level. Black girls are seven times more likely to be suspended than white female students, three times more likely to be restrained, and four times more likely to be arrested.

A new documentary, <em>Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,</em> hopes to “point the way for positive change” through the power of storytelling.
A new documentary, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, hopes to “point the way for positive change” through the power of storytelling.

Additionally, statistics show that the marginalization of black girls follows them well into adulthood. Black women earn 63 cents to every dollar that white men make (compared to the 80 made by white women). Black women are disproportionately employed in low-wage occupations, and 25 percent of black women live in poverty. On top of that, black women are about three times more likely to be imprisoned than white women, and one in 19 black women will be incarcerated at some point in her lifetime.

The film features heart-wrenching testimonies from young black girls across the country, ages 7 to 19, as they recall the personal challenges they have encountered in their learning environments and beyond. In the film, 12-year-old Samaya recalls being dragged out of class – and out of the school building – at age 7 by her teacher and left outside to wander the streets for hours before her parents were notified. The documentary also includes insightful perspectives from experts who have worked in social justice, gender equality and educational equity.

Morris explains that the girls in the film describe “wanting to be in a space where they can fully be themselves.” She tells Yahoo Life that most times, “Black girls have to mute themselves or only present a portion of themselves in order to be perceived as palatable in the school space,” where, she says, “even their laughter is sometimes seen as disruptive.” Morris says this lack of comfort can stifle the girls through their educational journeys. “That's deeply problematic, given that so many of us need to feel safe in the space that we are learning in...for us to fully take advantage of that opportunity.”

Throughout her work, she says, many black women and girls have expressed a “desire for them to be seen as worthy, to be loved, not to be fetishized, not to be seen in the context of dominant tropes and stereotypes about black girlhood, but to be seen for who they are and loved accordingly.” Morris explains to Yahoo Life that “all of the girls that are in the documentary film, all of the girls that are profiled in my books, all are appealing to the public, to adults, to their peers, for them to be received as growing young people in a society that often places them at the intersections of injustices that are far too much for them to uniquely deal with alone.”

The documentary is already creating change, as it’s inspired Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) to introduce the Ending PUSHOUT — Punitive, Unfair, School-Based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma — Act. Policymakers have deemed the documentary a “much-needed tool” to acknowledge and address the criminalization of youth in the education system. In a statement to the Intercept, Omar wrote, “punitive approaches to education do not help our children get an education.” Last year, Pressley hosted the documentary’s world premiere at the Congressional Black Caucus' 49th Annual Legislative Conference.

Since its release, Pushout has received major praise, winning both the Audience Favorite Award at the 2019 Downtown LA Film Festival and Best Documentary at the California Women’s Film Festival 2020. It was also nominated for a 2020 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Television Special.

Morris says there is a profound connection between the film and the ongoing Floyd protests. “It's important for us to make sure that we're doing these investments and responding to the violence that impacts black men and boys, but we also can't do that to the exclusion of black women and girls.”

However, she says the work cannot end with the demonstrations. “It's my hope that people take this moment while the world really is reconsidering its relationship with black people to...use this as an opportunity to maximize our capacity to be as inclusive as possible in our articulations of justice in the elevation of black lives,” Morris tells Yahoo Life.

She continues, “When the cameras shut off, when the protests stop, we have to continue to have these conversations with our children in our communities, with our elders about this value of black lives and this unique manifestation of white privilege in this country. We owe it to ourselves.”

Stream Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools on PBS.org until June 16.

Video produced by Stacy Jackman

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