Kansas City, March 2, 2020: Mikayla Witcher wants to be able to make a mistake without becoming another negative statistic about black girls.
Ms. Witcher is a senior at Central High School. She was among about 300 people who attended a special Kansas City premiere screening of the film, “Pushout: the Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” on Thursday, Feb. 27 at Southeast High School.
The feature-length film documents with numbers, personal stories and experts the way black girls are disproportionately and significantly impacted by inequitable expectations and treatment in the educational and legal system in the U.S. Witcher resonated with the film’s combination of honest assessments and a focus on solutions.
“Black girls aren’t just a statistic,” she said. “We are people and we do go through stuff. It’s hard being a black girl. Every day, living life as a black girl is probably the biggest hurdle that we face.”
“Pushout” is based on the 2018 book with the same title written by education researcher Dr. Monique Morris, who also produced the film. She cites a wide range of evidence to support her argument that African American women are stereotyped and traumatized at an early age by a racist economic, judicial and educational system. Those girls are then given harsher penalties compared to white students for the same types of behavior.
The screening was organized by Kansas City Public Schools Technology/Implementation Coordinator Andrea Cook with the help of Executive Director of Student Support Services Lateshia Woodley. Dr. Woodley is leading a wide range of social-emotional support programs aimed at helping all KCPS students succeed.
Ms. Cook decided to plan a screening of “Pushout” after seeing a tweet about the movie by Dr. Morris.
“Our goal is to make sure we actually stand up for black girls,” Cook said. “We need to realize that there is a problem with black girls being incarcerated more than others and suspended more than others. We want to start a dialogue about how we can create equity for our black girls. This movie will give a starting point for this conversation.”
According to federal Department of Education data cited in the film, black girls in high schools are:
- Six-times more likely to be suspended from school compared to white girls
- Twice as likely to be subject to corporal punishment
- Three-times more likely to get one or more in-school suspensions
- Four-times more likely to be arrested
- Three-times more likely to be restrained
- Three-times more likely to be referred to law enforcement
In general, black girls are more likely to be perceived to be threatening to authority figures like teachers and school administrators, according to the film. Those students are also seen as being more mature than their actual age and more defiant.
“As young, black women, we are held to a standard that sometimes we cannot meet,” Central High School senior Adriele Johnson said. “Holding those expectations on young, black women just leaves us dismayed. You should be able to be who you are, and when situations happen, be able to handle them without going into conflict.”
Adults fail to recognize the negative long-term impact of social-emotional trauma like abuse and poverty that leave black girls ill-equipped to handle conflict and other challenges. The film explains that while everyone experiences trauma, black girls face harsher consequences for their actions when they react negatively to setbacks. Schools impose disciplinary procedures that often funnel black girls into the judicial system.
“There’s no race, there’s no gender, there’s no socio-economic status that keeps us from experiencing adverse childhood experiences,” Dr. Woodley said. “But what we do know is that people of color and students who live in poverty are more likely to experience adverse childhood experiences at a higher rate than other races.”
The film follows a series of black girls who talk about the trauma they have experienced and ways that they have rebuilt their own lives. The conclusion is that the education system needs to be reformed so that black girls receive the kind of equitable treatment and targeted social-emotional support services they need to thrive in school and life.
Dr. Woodley led a panel discussion on stage with Witcher, Johnson and five other KCPS high school girls. The students, all black, shared their responses to the documentary and their own experiences. One girl talked about attempting suicide.
“I actually tried to kill myself in the seventh grade because I didn’t feel like I was loved,” she said. “I didn’t have the shoes I was supposed to have. I didn’t have all the things that people my age were supposed to care about.”
Black girls don’t need a miracle, Witcher said. They just need the same things any other teenager needs to thrive: recognition, empathy, patience, guidance, hope and understanding when they stumble.
“I just want people to know that we are someone and we can make it, and don’t just think because of how we look that we can’t get through it,” Johnson said. “Most of the time, we just want to be loved.”