By Chris Hoenig
Photo by Shutterstock
Kenji Roberts and Sakinah White are raising girls who are both good students. They are getting good grades and are very involved in extracurricular activities, like cheerleading.
But for each, an indelible mark has been left, scars of school discipline systems that treat them differently because of the color of their skin.
Mikia Hutchings, Roberts’ 12-year-old granddaughter, got into trouble with a friend for writing graffiti on a bathroom wall in their Henry County, Ga., middle school. “They were caught red-handed,” Edward Perkey, the friend’s father, told The New York Times.
Both girls were suspended for a few days. Hutchings’ friend, who is white, was asked to pay about $100 in restitution. Her case ended there.
“Take care of the damages, pay for the damaged shoes, and we’ll move on past this,” was the message from school officials, according to Perkey.
Roberts, meanwhile, was served on Hutchings’ behalf with criminal charges by local sheriff’s deputies. The 12-year-old, who is Black, faced misdemeanor trespassing charges, which could be upgraded to a felony.
“She couldn’t eat; she was scared” after the deputies’ visit, Roberts said.
So after Perkey’s daughter was cleared after making restitution, Hutchings spent the entire summer on criminal probation, adhering to a 7 p.m. curfew and performing a required 16 hours of community service. This was all part of a plea deal that required her to admit to allegations of criminal trespassing in order to have the juvenile-court charges dismissed.
“I’ve never had a white kid call me for representation in Henry County,” said Michael J. Tafelski, Hutchings’ lawyer. “What kid needs to be having a conversation with a lawyer about the right to remain silent White kids don’t have those conversations; Black kids do.”
Henry County has a large disparity in the suspensions of white girls versus Black girls, but it pales in comparison with stats across the state of Georgia and nationwide.
Black girls in public schools in the United States were suspended at a rate of 12 percent in 20112012, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. White girls were suspended at a rate of just 2 percent.
In Georgia, the disparity between the suspensions of Black girls versus white girls was a ratio of 5-1. In Henry County, the ratio is 2.3-1, according to county schools spokesman J D Hardin.
White’s 17-year-old daughter also had criminal charges filed against her in juvenile court after she was accused of hitting a white male student with a book. She was expelled from school and became suicidal, cutting herself with soda-can tops.
“It’s a form of child abuse,” White said.
The criminal charges against the girl were ultimately dropped and the state board of education reversed her expulsion.
Roberts and White believe the girls were presumed guilty before any disciplinary hearings ever began. “All of this is subjective because it’s me and my daughter’s word against his [the principal] word,” White said.
As a result, Tafelski has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging racial discrimination and a violation of the Civil Rights Act.
Villanova University researchers think another factor was also involved: the tone of the girls’ Black skin. According to their analysis of the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, dark-skinned Black girlsboth Hutchings and White are dark-skinnedwere three times more likely to be suspended than lighter-skinned Black girls.
“When a darker-skinned African-American female acts up, there’s a certain concern about their boyish aggressiveness; that they don’t know their place as a female, as a woman,” Villanova Professor of Sociology Dr. Lance Hannon said.
It’s a message that is not completely falling on deaf ears at the top.
“The felt experience of too many of our girls in school is that they are being discriminated against,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. “The message we send when we suspend or expel any student is that that student is not worthy of being in the school. That is a pretty ugly message to internalize and very, very difficult to get past as part of an educational career.”