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Editorial: If Girls of Color Are Not Safe in School, Where Can They Be?

by Nakisha Lewis /

Millions have watched the footage of an unarmed young woman violently assaulted while sitting in a Spring Valley High School (Spring Valley, SC) classroom. These videos, taken by fellow students, show a school resource officer grabbing the student while seated at her desk, and flipping her backward in the desk before pulling her from it and throwing her across the room.

The assault ended with the arrest of the young woman and a classmate, who stood up in her defense, also a young black woman. The in-school arrest of young people, particularly for nonviolent offenses, and subsequent placement in the juvenile justice system, sets up the troubling pathway commonly known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

The school-to-prison pipeline is fueled in large part by racial bias. For girls, there is also a gender bias at play. It is the compounding of racial and gender biases that makes girls of color particularly vulnerable.

As a result, Black, Latina and Indigenous-American girls are disciplined at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts. For example, the United States Department of Education reports that Black girls are suspended six times more than white girls.

Violence against Black women and girls happens across the country in spaces that should be safe — not just in schools, but also in churches, on the streets and in their homes.

What is even more harmful is that the offenses for which girls of color are disciplined and criminalized are extremely subjective. In the case of Spring Valley, both girls were arrested for “disturbing school,” similar to "willful defiance" in other school districts.

Such discipline codes allow for young people to be arrested on a case-by-case basis for behaviors that have complex, underlying causes. Oftentimes, these behaviors are indicative of violent and traumatic experiences like sexual abuse.

One of the many factors initiating the prison pipeline for young women of color is the excessive punishment and displacement of girls of color — without treatment for contributing causes to the behaviors. We cannot presume to know any pre-existing trauma this young woman suffered, but given that one in four girls will be sexually abused before age 18; every young woman should be approached with care and concern.

If the institutions and adults entrusted with protecting young people continue to enable the school-to-prison pipeline through their bias and subsequent actions, where is it that girls of color can feel safe?

Violence against Black women and girls happens across the country in spaces that should be safe — not just in schools, but also in churches, on the streets and in their homes. What makes matters worse is the disturbingly high rate at which Black women and girls have been silenced for speaking up against violence.

Those who fight back — like Niya Kenny, the second student arrested in Spring Valley — face arrest, threats or are, themselves, assaulted. These actions are the systematic devaluing of not only the physical bodies of Black women but also their voices.

We must question any disciplinary procedures that have a disproportionate impact on those most marginalized, and condemn the violence and silencing of any voice.

It has always been the mission of the Ms. Foundation to raise the collective voices of women, in particular those like Niya, whose voices are actively being suppressed. During my brief tenure at the helm of the Safety program for the Ms. Foundation, my top priority has been to listen; to be in community and conversation with cisgender, transgender, and gender nonconforming women about issues around safety.

These conversations center around the fact that violence in all forms — including state sanctioned violence — coupled with the multiple ways women are set up for incarceration and confinement through disproportionate school discipline, low wage work, and lack of access to health care and affordable housing are their primary concerns.

These voices ring in my ear everyday as the Ms. Foundation sets out to redesign a safety strategy that builds upon our historic work in domestic violence and ending child sexual abuse. In listening to these voices we are seeking to broaden the scope of our safety work and focus on the needs of women living in the margins of the margins of society.

As this conversation continues we must as a nation listen. We must question any disciplinary procedures that have a disproportionate impact on those most marginalized, and condemn the violence and silencing of any voice.

We must reform our schools and our entire communities so that they do not serve as a pathway to incarceration or confinement for women. If we do not insist on this cultural shift, we are resigning to live in a nation where entire groups live in fear of the very institutions that should be protecting them — a nation where Black women and girls cannot speak and their bodies can be ripped violently from them.

Nakisha M. Lewis is the senior strategist safety for the Ms. Foundation for Women.