Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) is set to introduce legislation on Thursday to tackle the problem of students of color, particularly Black girls, facing disproportionately punitive discipline in school.
The Ending Pushout Act aims to stop discriminatory punishment practices that “criminalize Black and brown students, push them out of school and exacerbate the school to prison pipeline,” per a release from Pressley’s team. This is the first bill to come out of the congresswoman’s sweeping criminal justice reform proposals announced last month.
Black students in the U.S. are significantly more likely than white students to be suspended, expelled, arrested at school or referred to outside law enforcement agencies. While Black children make up about 16% of all U.S. public school students, they account for about 40% of school suspensions, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report.
Black girls in particular face harsher treatment in school than their peers: they are over five times more likely to be suspended than white girls, according to a 2017 report from the National Women’s Law Center, which used data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights from 2013-2014.
Pressley’s legislation, co-sponsored by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), would establish $2.5 billion in new grants for states and schools to provide educators with implicit bias training, invest in counselors and social workers, and adjust school discipline policies ― notably around “appearance” and “grooming” for students ― with input from families and community members.
To be eligible for the funds, schools would have to ban suspensions and expulsions in all grades for being late or chronically absent and for “minor infractions” like violating grooming policies. Most other suspensions and expulsions would have to end for kids up to 5th grade. The schools would also have to ban corporal punishment, isolation and restraining students.
“Not only are our girls carrying trauma from their personal lives when they enter school, but for far too many, schools have become a place that criminalizes and harms girls of color,” said Pressley, who made history last year as the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts.
Several instances of harsh, racist discipline in schools have made headlines in recent years. In 2018, a 6-year-old boy was kicked out of a Florida private school for wearing dreadlocks. In 2015, a South Carolina school police officer, who was white, was caught on video slamming a 16-year-old Black female student to the ground after dragging her from her desk (he was fired but did not face federal charges for violating the student’s rights). In 2014, a school police officer in Kansas placed a 7-year-old Black boy in handcuffs after he cried in class.
Other students of color also face harsh school punishment. Latina girls are 1.6 times more likely than white girls to get suspended, and Native American girls three times more likely, per a 2016 National Women’s Law Center report.
Pressley’s bill would require the Education Department to collect additional data from schools and report on the “school pushout crisis,” as well as establish a federal task force to examine the disproportionate impact of school suspensions, expulsions and other punishments on girls of color.
Last year, the Trump administration rescinded a piece of Obama-era guidance meant to protect students from racist school discipline.
“As the Trump Administration actively works to roll back protections for our most vulnerable students, we must work in partnership with community to develop holistic solutions that center the lived experiences of girls of color who have been most impacted by cruel and discriminatory school policies and practices,” said Pressley.