The persistent criminalization and pathologizing of Black youth in the U.S. educational system is a fundamental driver for their entry into the criminal legal system. Despite decades of evidence of the far-reaching harms of the “school-to-prison pipeline” and, more recently, demands from Black Lives Matter activists to defund school police, the role of schools in criminalizing Black girls has been left out of mainstream academic discourse. This occurs even though Black girls experience some of the most subjective and discriminatory practices in schools and evidence of an upward trend in discipline disparities since the mid-2000s. For Black girls with disabilities the data reveals an even starker picture: Black girls are five times more likely to be suspended than are white, nondisabled girls and Black girls experience the highest disparity for rates of referrals to law enforcement at six times more than white, nondisabled girls.
The absence of Black girls from the larger portrait of youth criminalization and anti-criminalization efforts is sadly not surprising. Across multiple fields, scholars and advocates, have failed to fundamentally embed intersectional approaches into their work. A rich body of literature critically explores systemic, structural, and individual drivers of disparate outcomes, but this approach is not representative of the dominant theory and research guiding practice or policy. We argue that such examinations are fundamental if one seeks to name and dismantle youth criminalization as a form of systemic oppression.
In this Article we focus our attention on school-based restorative justice (“RJ”) as presenting a critical area for embedding intersectional frameworks and approaches at the levels of movement, practice, policy, and law reform. RJ is a primary intervention to prevent youth criminalization in schools. RJ has been adopted in school contexts with positive outcomes ranging from diminished reliance on punitive discipline to promoting protective health factors. Though the empirical literature is limited, this Article draws on three studies to underscore the potential of RJ to place Black girls at the center of what should be the anti-criminalization and RJ discourse. This Article concludes with a call for research that further examines the efficacy of RJ to promote the well-being of Black girls.
Simply put, this Article is a call for change, not only in the disparate impact of school criminalization practices on Black girls, but to the unidimensional approach to reform. There is an urgency to simultaneously dismantle harmful norms in schools, confront intersectional oppression, and prioritize the resilience and well-being of Black girls.