Black girls in Florida do not feel safe in schools: Study

A new study has found that Black girls in Florida often feel unsafe in their schools due to policing policies and cultures of criminalization in the Sunshine State.

The report, published by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), includes a group of Black girls and young women, ages 14 to 24, who shared their experiences within Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) through surveys and focus groups.

In general, Black girls faced harsher treatment from school police and security including sexual harassment from security guards; humiliation and shame during in-class police and K-9 searches; and discipline settings, such as detention, that mimic prison-like conditions, per the study’s findings.

“Black girls everywhere deserve to feel safe in schools,” Bayliss Fiddleman, director of education equity at the National Women’s Law Center, said in a statement.

“In discussions about school safety, the experiences of Black girls are overlooked, resulting in ineffective school safety measures that do not take into account the specific barriers, stereotypes, and harms they face based on their race and gender,” she added.

Part of the reason Black girls feel unsafe in schools, the report found, is because of “adultification,” or the perception that Black girls are older than they are, less innocent and more promiscuous than their white peers. As a result, Black girls are more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension or expulsion than white girls.

Additionally, when Black girls were sexualized or harassed, they were often blamed for the event or had their experience minimized, the study found.

When they are policed by security guards, the girls said they encountered several forms of discrimination, including racism and sexual harassment, and that they feel like their security guards treated them differently than students of other races.

“I feel like when you’re a Black student, and you go to school, they don’t see you as … ‘She’s just a kid,’” a senior at Homestead Senior High School said in the report. “No, they see you as a grown person who’s responsible for your decision and, of course, you are, but I feel like, as kids, we should be given, like, second chances.”

One sophomore at Miami Northwestern Senior High School reported seeing security officers being more “gentle and compassionate” toward lighter-skinned students.

“And towards the Black students and darker-skinned, they’re more aggressive towards us and treat us like we’re nothing, basically,” the student said. “And they haven’t directly said, like, negative comments about us, but I do hear them saying, like, colorist things and things about our hair and stuff like that.”

The report also found that Black girls are disproportionately targeted and harassed by school-based police. As such, they are also more likely to be pushed out of school and into the criminal legal system, which can have long-term career and financial repercussions.

Roughly 25 percent of Black girls involved in incidents in school that usually receive a civil citation were arrested instead.

School security officers in Florida have come under scrutiny after multiple events of alleged discrimination.

In 2018, following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglass high School in Parkland, Fla., the Florida Legislature passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act (MSD Act). The act was meant to increase school safety, but it also increased law enforcement in schools and surveillance.

Advocates at the time were concerned the legislation would lead to increased youth arrests, with a disproportionate effect on minority students.

During the 2020–2021 school year, there were approximately 1,300 security guards working in Miami schools — nearly twice the number of full-time school counselors. Schools like Miami Northwestern Senior High School had as many as 16 security guards in addition to sworn law enforcement officers.

Since the legislation went into effect, an officer was fired after yanking a Black girl’s head back by her hair at Westridge Middle School. A 6-year-old Black girl was arrested by Orlando police for throwing a tantrum. At another school, in Kissimmee, a 16-year-old Black girl was slammed to the ground, knocked unconscious and then handcuffed to prevent a fight.

In listening sessions with Black girls at M-DCPS schools, many expressed mixed feelings about how safe they feel in their high schools, and several girls said they felt outright “unsafe.”

“School hardening policies often rely on an increased police presence that creates risks for Black girls that are often overlooked, such as sexual harassment and assault by police at much higher rates than other girls,” said Bacardi Jackson, deputy legal director of democracy: education and youth at the SPLC. “This report is a clarion call to center their experiences in decisions about school safety.”

The report calls on schools and lawmakers to implement “holistic school safety” strategies. These plans would address psychological, emotional and physical safety needs of all students.

The study also recommends investing in student support services and avoiding school policies that police, surveil, and harshly punish students. It also calls for schools to take steps to keep girls safe from sexual harassment and assault, including harassment by school-based police officers and security guards.

“Schools are somewhere we spend the majority of our time, so the environment needs to feel safe. You need to have some level of comfort being in your school. And, of course, there should be no risk of bodily harm,” a 12th-grade student at Miami Northwestern Senior High School said.

A member of the M-DCPS school board was not immediately available for comment.

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