Fighting for Women's Equality

In Their Own Words: Racism and Sexism in Schools

July 11, 2016 | by

Schools should be safe havens — places where all students feel supported and equipped to learn and thrive. And Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs, is supposed to ensure student safety and equal opportunities. But we know that this is not always the reality, particularly for young girls of color.

As we work to transform schools into positive learning environments, listening to the voices of girls is paramount. Equal Rights Advocates has joined forces with over 100 organizations serving girls in the Bay Area as members of Alliance for Girls, which has released a study on the experiences of girls of color in the Oakland Unified School District.

Through focus groups and interviews with students and administrators, the study exposes the challenges facing girls of color and will inform the development of responsive strategies by ERA and other Alliance for Girls’ members to improve equity across the district.

Among many concerns and challenges raised, three rise to the top as critical to ensuring the success of girls of color:

  • As is the case nationwide, the study finds that African American girls in Oakland Unified schools are suspended at disproportionate rates.While representing only one-third of girls across the district, African American girls represent two-thirds of girls suspended. Unsurprisingly, African American girls were much more likely to describe their schools as uncaring, and were the only group that expressed feelings of exclusion and unfair treatment by teachers and administrators.
  • Girls want more girls-specific school programming. While girls and administrators in Oakland schools note an uptick in boys-specific school programming, such as the new African American Male Achievement Initiative, there is a lack of such programs for girls. Possible programs that girls expressed interest in included social justice programs, sexual education classes, and girls-only support groups. Ensuring that girls have equal opportunities in educational programming, including the soon-to-be launched African American Girls Achievement Initiative, is not only required by Title IX, but is critical to creating spaces where girls thrive at school.
  • Girls in Oakland Unified reported widespread sexual harassment, “slut-shaming,” and gendered stereotypes inside and outside the classroom. For example, “girls reported that teachers and principals put pressure on girls to regulate their behavior because boys ‘can’t control themselves.’” In addition to reporting frequent “cat-calling” and harassment both at and outside of school, girls expressed a need for increased support from teachers and administrators in response to these incidents. These findings echo those ERA found in its review of 116 school By Area school districts, described in Ending Harassment Now: Keeping Our Kids Safe At School.

The next step in this project will be implementing sustainable policy change in OUSD to address the issues girls of color have identified as the most urgent. ERA is taking a leadership role in this effort as part of Alliance for Girls’ Technical Assistance Team and Policy Development & Implementation Committee. We bring our legal expertise to the team, working alongside member organizations who are experts in restorative justice, trauma-informed practice, and culturally relevant and gender-responsive programming. This unique collaboration will produce both policy recommendations and resources OUSD schools can use to improve the educational experience of girls of color and reduce suspension rates for African American girls. 

Ensuring equal opportunities in educational and athletic programs, curbing disproportionate punishment that can push girls out of school entirely, and protecting students from sexual harassment and violence are absolutely necessary for Oakland’s schools and others across the country. Through our advocacy with the Alliance for Girls, we hope to develop not only model policies and best practices, but a model relationship between a school district and its constituent community, with the shared objective of achieving educational equity for girls of color.

Learn more about ERA’s Strong Girls Initiative here.

Thank you to the Oakland Public Education Fund, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and National Girls Initiative, for funding this study.

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