“Lead with Love.”

An interview with Monique Morris on Black girls, school discipline, implicit bias, and what educators can do.

Monique Morris is an award-winning author and social justice scholar with nearly three decades of experience in the areas of education, civil rights, juvenile and social justice. Dr. Morris is the author of several books, including Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (The New Press, 2016), and has written and lectured often on social justice issues, improving juvenile justice, and educational, and socioeconomic conditions for Black girls, women, and their families.

She is the Founder and President of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, an organization that works to interrupt school-to-confinement pathways for girls, reduce the barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated women, and increase the capacity of organizations working to reduce sexual assault and domestic violence in African American communities.

MSEA recently interviewed Dr. Morris about her work, particularly as it relates to the school experiences of Black girls.

You write that the framework of the school-to-prison pipeline “may have wrongfully masculinized Black girls’ experiences,” and you reframe the discussion around “school-to-confinement pathways.” How do you find this reframing to be more holistic and inclusive of the experience of Black girls?

This framework allows for us to explore the multiple pathways to confinement for girls (as opposed to a linear representation of contact) and the multiple ways in which Black girls and other young women of color are impacted by confinement and criminalization beyond “prison.” This framework allows for considerations of trauma, relationships, and other factors closely associated with many root causes of misbehavior that lead to exclusionary discipline.

What are the most common ways in which you see implicit bias among adults manifest itself in the education of Black girls?

In Pushout, I write about age-compression, or the way that Black girls are perceived as more adult-like and therefore engaged with harsher punishment than their peers. Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality recently published a study that found that educators perceive Black girls to need less nurturing, to require less support, and to be comforted less. The reading of Black girls as “defiant” or “combative” are subjective and can be used to support exclusionary discipline even when minor incidents occur (e.g., cell phone use, dress code violation, etc.). These perceptions reflect biases that inform whether educators approach misbehaviors through punitive or empathetic strategies — and whether school leaders are inclined to use zero tolerance policies or develop a full continuum of responses to negative student behavior.

How has the appearance of Black girls become a unique subject of discipline, and what ramifications has this created for their self-identity and self-expression?

Many Black girls perceive a difference in the enforcement they receive regarding school dress codes — particularly those that create opportunities for adults to use their discretion in enforcement. The National Women’s Law Center’s new report on dress code policies in Washington, D.C. offers plenty of examples of how Black girls’ bodies are subjected to surveillance and are “read” as problematic as a function of preconceived notions about her identities and expressions.

What will the increasing presence of school resource officers in elementary, middle, and high schools mean for Black girls, who already face disproportionate rates of suspension and school arrests?

I believe we should be investing in the development of schools that do not invite or require a routine police presence; but unfortunately, we’ve been moving in the opposite direction. Our impulse is often to add more police officers in efforts to generate conditions of safety, but really, safety is co-constructed, not implemented.

Police officers do not receive training on working with girls of color, which is highly problematic. The National Black Women’s Justice Institute partnered with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality to develop a toolkit for SROs working with girls of color to uplift the many gaps in training that lead to the racial disparities we see among girls experiencing school-based arrests. This toolkit was not an invitation for more police in schools, but it is a recognition that to the extent they are in schools, there should be some critical discussion about how they can more effectively interact with Black girls and other girls of color.

SROs who lead with the “R” (Resource) and who are willing to put in the work it takes to build relationships with young people on campus tend to rely less on the tools of law enforcement to help maintain safety in schools. Those that use intimidation and violence in response to what are usually normal adolescent and pre-adolescent behaviors are those who weaponize their power to the detriment of girls of color — and their identities as scholars. I believe that the way to achieve safety in a manner responsive to marginalized girls (and thus everyone else) is through counseling and relationship-building.

What is the cultural cost of code switching for Black girls? How are they marginalized when they don’t conform to prescribed school norms that are not culturally informed?

I see code switching as a tool — a necessary tool — for survival. It is actually a beautiful skill that increases the capacity of communities of color to traverse new thresholds of power. What marginalizes Black girls is the adult reading of their organic cultural expressions as somehow inherently problematic or inferior to the expressions of their counterparts from other communities. Culturally responsive pedagogical practices explore ways to validate and expand students’ tools for communication, instead of undermining girls’ capacity to do so by rendering their organic expressions as inferior to normed modes of professional engagement.

What are some classroom-level steps that educators can take to make a difference for Black girls? In other words, how can individual educators open the door to Black girls so that they are acknowledged, welcomed, and invited to fully participate?

First, I believe educators — and others for that matter — should lead with love. But I want to answer this question by sharing what girls share with me on this topic when I ask them this same question. I believe that those who are living these experiences in real time are the best communicators around what needs to shift in classrooms in order for them to excel. Girls profiled in Pushout as well as those that I’ve had to opportunity to engage since the book was first published have shared with me that they wanted educators: 1) who care about them; 2) who set high standards for them because they believe the girls are capable of meeting the challenge; 3) who take the time to know them — their from their passions to the correct pronunciation of their names; and 4) who teach material that does not marginalize their experiences.

In the last chapter and appendices of Pushout, I outline other strategies educators can take to become a stronger part of the tapestry of healing in these girls’ lives. However, the National Black Women’s Justice Institute also worked with Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley to engage a participatory process to develop a series of school-based recommendations to reduce the criminalization and use of exclusionary discipline with girls of color. In this document, we share strategies that are transferrable to comparable districts, so I encourage educators to review this tool.

Many school systems in Maryland are beginning to implement restorative justice approaches. What do you think are the key aspects of implementing this framework well?

I think that there is a lot of promise in the use of restorative approaches to repairing harm in schools. I also believe that while relationships need to be repaired between and among individuals, there should also be an intention to repair the relationship between individuals and institutions that have been part of the tapestry of harm in the lives of marginalized communities. I see learning spaces that are incredibly innovative in their approaches to harm — but sometimes these strategies go unnoticed. We’ve come to reduce “restorative practice” to the single model of sitting in circle, when really, there are so many ways that we can repair, restore, and transform relationships when there has been a conflict. For Black girls and other girls of color, it is also important to install spaces for youth to address historical trauma and racial bias such that they can fully understand how their education can become a tool to counter oppressions. When girls understand and engage education as a liberative tool, she can restore her relationship with herself, which is the most important of all.