Research has shown that because of their gender and race, Black, Latina, and Native American girls are twice as likely as their white peers to experience harsh school discipline. Black and Latina girls are targets of biased disciplinary practices in schools and zero-tolerance policies. Often perceived as loud, sassy, and hypersexual -- targeted for their hairstyles clothing, and overall presentation -- girls of color are impacted by implicit bias in addition to zero-tolerance policies and unfair disciplinary practices in schools. As we work to address the disparities in school discipline, we need to ensure that the intersection of race and gender is a part of that conversation. 

The unique challenges girls face happen in school environments that feel more like prisons than places of learning and growth -- with students forced to carry a school ID to be known, have their book bag searched, and walk through metal detectors to access school grounds. As classrooms have switched to virtual learning due to the pandemic, criminalization has manifested in other ways, from incarcerating students for not completing their homework, to the enforcement of cyber truancy, the act of sending child protective services to a student’s home if they miss class. Criminalization does not create the nurturing, welcoming environment students need to be successful. We need to equip educators with the resources and support they need to ensure our girls are met with care and empathy, not punishment and trauma-inducing practices. Acknowledging and embracing the ways our struggles are interconnected, even if they’re different, is an important part of recognizing the full humanity of girls of color.

Whether in person or virtual, schools need to be a place that is culturally affirming, anti-racist, and focused on the holistic student experience. The Education Trust and The National Women’s Law Center recently released Learning Environments for Girls of Color, a guide that provides policymakers, educators, and advocates with the resources they need to reform these exclusionary policies and help all girls thrive. The guide includes a checklist that states and districts can use to ensure they are implementing policies that make sure girls of color attend a safe and inclusive school. Leaders at every level in the education system can work together to address disparities girls of color are facing that result in high levels of suspension and dropping out. This requires an acknowledgement of the systemic barriers they experience inside and outside the classroom. This guide and checklist are a start, and if done right can be critical towards creating equitable learning environments where students can feel safe and thrive. 

Donors who care about and fund in the education space will find this resource helpful, as well. Serving all students requires understanding the needs of the most impacted communities. That means learning and most importantly, listening. Addressing educational practices like discipline is just a start. In order to truly create change, we have to understand the ways in which a student’s experience in school is connected to issues like food insecurity and lack of stable housing. As funders, we have to be willing to listen to the community and trust they are in the best position to identify the problems that are impacting them, as well as the best way to address them. Through my work with the Building Equitable Learning Environments Network, I’ve seen the importance of listening to communities and what they need and want for their children.

The best way to prevent future incarceration and criminalization of girls of color is to invest on the front end by rooting out systemic biases, focusing on students’ holistic well-being, and prioritizing what youth and families say they need. For funders, supporting organizations that are advocating for girls of color in the classroom and investing in work focused on reimagining our current inequitable education system is key to ensuring that every student can thrive being their authentic selves. 

If you’re looking to learn more about the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline and what you can do to address this issue, here are some materials to help you do so:

  1. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique Morris
  2. A relationship centered school model by Californians for Justice
  3. Reunite, Renew, and Thrive: SEL Roadmap for Reopening School by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
  4. Gwinnett Stop
  5. Communities United 
  6. Voices of Youth in Chicago Education


By Dr. Gisele C. Shorter, Education Strategy Program Officer at the Raikes Foundation. The heartbeat of her K-12 portfolio is the Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) Network. Collectively the BELE membership leverage their resources to develop an education system that ensures the intellectual, social, emotional, and cultural growth and wellbeing of all young people and results in social-cultural markers having zero negative predictive power on outcomes. Read more from the BELE Network on Giving Compass.