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Dr. Monique Morris, author and former Vice President of Economic Programs, Advocacy and Research at the NAACP, conducted in-depth interviews with 17 African American young women at one juvenile detention center to gain insight into the educational experiences of girls in confinement. She did these interviews over the period of 14 months, and questioned the girls about things like strict classroom discipline and out-dated curricula. Youth Radio’s Darelle Brown interviewed Morris about her work.
DB: What are some of the main findings of the study?
MM: The girls who were in confinement had significant histories of suspension and expulsions. But the girls themselves felt that education was important…they just don’t know how to make it real in their lives.
A large percentage of the girls expressed wanting to advance their education, wanting to go to school, wanting to feel connected with school, but had experienced situations that had severely harmed their relationships with school. They knew what they wanted, but didn’t really have an idea how to get there or [didn’t] have the appropriate mentor and guidance on how to complete their studies.
DB: Is there anything that one of your interviewees told you that you will never forget?
MM: A story of a girl who was 13, and [she] had talked about her experience being bullied at school. No one picked up on that. People had responded to her as if she was a problem, and yet she was having this tension with some other girls in the school who would constantly challenge her to fight, just testing her. And her reaction to that was to write on the wall.
According to her, writing on the wall was defacing school property and she ended up being expelled for it. And when I asked her what she wrote on the wall, she said, “I hate the B’s in this school.” For me, that really stood out because that was both — in my mind — a cry for help that wasn’t adequately addressed, and also a missed opportunity for the school to recognize what might be happening with some of the tensions and relationships among the girls.
DB: I was especially interested to find out that, 73% of the girls you interviewed felt their education was not preparing them for their futures. How do you feel about this statistic?
MM: I’m disappointed by that statistic. I think it’s really important for education to be connected to what your life goals are. There’s a lot that we learn growing up, we think is useless… But what’s important, especially with a high risk population of kids in confinement, is dealing with a lot of life distractions and trying to figure out how they’re going to live. It’s really important that the conversation about education not stand independently from how you’re going to make a living and be connected in your life, because that is the conversation.
DB: Why did you focus just on black females?
MM: While there have been multi-million dollar initiatives that are designed to address the conditions and needs of males in our community, I have decided to focus my energy on females just so we can begin to balance this conversation. I’m hopeful that we will reach a point where there’s an adequate investment in both males and females and we can come back to this full circle around this conversation about community.
DB: Some girls told you they missed school because of prostitution. Did they explain why they chose prostitution over their education? Did they also say that they highly valued their education?
MM: The story that I would get is that prostitution was their survival mechanism. Some of these young women are without their families, or they’re in family situations that are harmful, so they leave. And they hook up with someone that is much older and promises to take care of them, and then they get caught up and that’s [prostitution is] where they go.
For one girl in particular, there was a discussion about her feeling like she can go to school — and I think her exact words were, “You can still go to school and be a prostitute, but that’s if he lets you.” Other girls described not wanting to go to school anymore because once people see you out, the rumors begin, the conversations start, and these girls feel like they can’t go to school anymore because everyone knows what they do and who they are… It becomes a hostile learning place and a hostile environment, so they just choose not to go.
DB: What must schools in juvenile detention facilities do to give kids a better education?
MM: My sense of the matter is that these juvenile court schools are a great opportunity for us to repair a relationship with school. It’s a time for us to shift the minds of young people who are disconnected some way with school. It’s a chance to say, ‘Okay let’s get your ducks in a row and get you back on track.’ We need to have a series of structured courses that are designed to connect them better to their life goals, so making sure that their math classes are connected to what they want to do with their lives. Establish more group work, so that the young people can learn from each other in positive ways, and engage with teachers in positive ways, so they know that some learning is self-directed.
DB: 88% of the girls you interviewed had a history of suspension and 65% had a history of expulsion in traditional schools. And within the juvenile court school, almost all interviewees had been removed from the classroom. In your opinion, what does this say about how we discipline girls?
MM: [In non-juvenile court schools] girls might engage in actions that are deemed to be disruptive to the classroom learning environment…. So if they see something, they don’t like it, they have a question, they’ll challenge, they’ll respond. Part of that is a cultural norm. Part of that is a norm of resistance that comes from being aware of who you are. It’s also been a strong survival tool for black girls… If Fannie Lou Hamer sat down and didn’t question — what would have happened? Would there have been a Mississippi Freedom Party?
In [juvenile court school], it’s a hyper-punitive environment. Even if you’re not disruptive — if you threaten to be disruptive, it could lead to some other problematic outcomes. If a student is asking questions and in her mind she’s trying to get clarification on something, so she’s repeating a question like, “No, that’s not what I asked…” If the tone is deemed to be disrespectful, or the line of questioning appears to challenge the authority of the instructor, there was an opportunity for the girl to be removed from the classroom.
DB: There’s a new juvenile facility for girls being built in the Bay Area. It is specifically designed to address the needs of sexually-exploited young people, and provide a comforting environment and cooking classes for the girls arrested. What do you think of this?
MM: I would like to see more attention paid on the front end, so there are community-based alternatives prior to them being technically on probation or in contact with the justice system…
There are some critiques of gender-responsive programs that they focus on the domestic aspects of being female, as opposed to developing other life skills. What’s ultimately going to need to happen, is certainly the development of skill-sets beyond cooking.
This might be an opportunity to talk about engaging in some skills around conflict resolution and restorative practices. Develop the educational programming so they’re learning skills they can apply to their own lives.