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Solutions and Strategies for Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline or the War Against Black Girls
Tonjie Reese 
October 1, 2021


A while back my mother gave me a box of things from my childhood. It was filled to the brim with pictures, awards, certificates, and report cards. Among the proud academic treasures was a report card from second grade. I received all A’s, fairly good citizenship scores, and a D in homework. Despite that poor grade, I continued to do fairly well in school. The ‘D’ it seemed, was not very consequential for me. For Grace, another Black girl from Michigan, that was not the case. In mid-May Grace was sent to juvenile detention for failing to complete her online homework, a violation of her parole. Despite petitions from her mother and Grace, she was ordered to stay in confinement because the judge believed she was doing well and would be more successful behind bars. Fortunately, Grace was released a few months later by a different judge.

Dismantling the school to prison pipeline is a critical part of ending the war against Black girls. Grace’s story is just one of thousands who are incarcerated because of school related incidents. Harsh punishments because of minor offenses place Black girls on the receiving end of abuse from institutions that are supposed to protect them.

Historically, girls and women were only expected to go to school for a short period of time, and not receive higher education. When the time came for more choices around education, there was a belief that getting an education would be the only thing that releases Black girls from oppression. That isn’t possible when the school system is developed under patriarchal and white superiority ideals. Those ideals shape which young people we believe are worthy of a future.

There is a way for Black girls like Grace to not only have a future, but one that is filled with joy and hope. Centering belonging at the systemic, community, and personal level can dismantle pipelines to prison and abuse. Belonging starts with identity affirmation, or the acceptance of every part of someone. Accepting Black girls means embracing culture, recognizing oppressions, and allowing opportunities for assertion of who they are.

Our most crucial point of creating belonging is at the personal level. As a child, I was warned by my loved ones to not be a “fast-tailed” girl or act too grown up. From what I understood, fast girls were the ones who were sexually abused, got in trouble at school, and deserving of harm. That way of thinking is a result of adultification bias against Black girls. The way I dressed, spoke, or even where I went was carefully thought out so I wouldn’t be one of those girls. Despite my efforts, I still found myself experiencing harassment, strong discipline when I slipped up, and an expectation to do away with childish things at a young age. There was pressure to be everyone else’s version of me. Working with first generation Black girls in college, I have heard similar stories. In our personal relationships, we have to move away from words like “fast” or “grown” when referring to Black girls. We have to believe them when they disclose abuse or harm, even if they are considered more mature. We can also promote personal agency or the ability to have self-control over their thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Alongside centering belonging  at the personal level, communities are a leverage point. When outside of their homes, all young people deserve to feel welcomed and safe. The work to dismantle pipelines to prison is already being done by local mentoring programs and organizations that support Black girls. In Los Angeles, Positive Results Center (PRC) is an organization dedicated to serving Black and Brown young people and developing healthy communities. PCR’s work to center young people from the margins ensures that all young people have the ability to thrive. In many communities, there are few or no culturally specific programs for young people of color. Investing resources into culturally specific programs offers Black girls a better chance to be heard, believed, and encouraged to make healthy choices.

In addition to supporting young people, raising our collective understanding as adults can contribute to young people feeling safe. Ongoing education and training for loved ones and adults is imperative. Looking back, I wonder how my life would be different had I not been worried about appearing too fast or grown. Would I have felt more liberated and assertive? Would I have done more to protect my schoolmates who were considered that way? When adults put adultification bias into practice, we shape the way Black girls view themselves and each other.

At the organizational and systemic level, shifts can be made in schools and the justice system. Harsh punishments in schools and “zero tolerance” policies push out students who could be successful if given the opportunity. Unaddressed trauma can show up as bad behavior or acting out. If there are limited spaces for Black girls to feel belonging, they may not receive the support they need to heal after trauma. Schools should consider trauma informed care when developing school policies. There also can’t be an assumption that all Black girls are trouble or have experienced hardships. The justice system can contribute to the shift by offering alternative forms of justice when girls are trafficked or forced into violence and make intentional efforts to not put Black girls, like Grace, behind bars for education related incidents. Work with the loving adults in young people’s lives to better understand their needs.

At every level of engagement, there is a chance to uplift and embrace Black girls. Yes, there are some girls who don’t follow rules, commit crimes, and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. They are no less deserving of support and care. In her book, We Want to Do More to Than Survive, Dr. Bettina Love says, “Abolitionist teaching is not just about tearing down and building up but also about the joy necessary to be in solidarity with others, knowing that your struggle for freedom is constant but that there is beauty in the camaraderie of creating a just world.” Coming together as a collective and defining our role in the war against Black girls will move us towards dismantling the school to prison pipeline and creating that just world.