“It’s more important now than ever to really, really center in on students of color,” Nia Evans told me.
Evans is a developer for The National Women’s Law Centers "Let Her Learn" campaign, which debuted last December. Earlier this month, the campaign released a viral video that raised awareness about the unjust way that girls of color—especially black girls—can be treated in schools.
The stories in the video are harrowing. In South Carolina, a high school girl got slammed to the ground and dragged across the floor by a cop for simply sitting in her desk. A seven-year-old black girl in Milwaukee got her hair cut off by her teacher in front of the class because she wouldn’t stop playing with her braids. In Texas, a third-grade girl was sent home because her natural hairstyle was deemed inappropriate according to the school’s dress code. The video ends with the girls rejecting the stereotypes pinned on them (aggressive, rude, unladylike, angry) and telling the world who they actually are: strong, sensitive, powerful, smart leaders.
All of these very true stories are just three of the incidents involving unwarranted and overly hostile treatment of black girls in schools that made headlines in 2016. And this is hardly a new issue.
Last June, the Department of Education released new data showing that black K-12 students were 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than white ones, with 10 percent of black girls receiving at least one or more out-of-school suspensions.
In the 2015-2016 school year, black and Latinx students made up 96% of suspensions at Chicago Public Schools.
In 2014, Columbia University law professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw found that black girls were punished in school at rates even higher than black boys.
"Let Her Learn" is trying to halt these disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion for black and brown girls within the education system. Not only does it result in lower academic self-esteem, but also, according to the African American Policy Forum, it is directly linked to “school dropouts and increased contact with the criminal justice system.”
“Our goal is to create healthier, safer schools for girls of color it sounds kind of lofty but we want schools that are centering girls at every single point—in policy, in decision-making, in services,” Evans told me.
In Donald Trump’s America, this goal will be even harder to fight for and more important to obtain. Not only does President Trump have plans to scale back the budget and size of the Department of Education, which recently made a plan to limit the presence of police in schools, but specifically he plans to scale back on the work of the DOE's Office of Civil Rights, which has been a leader in investigating the excessive rates at which students of color are suspended and expelled.
There are also other concerns. For instance, Betsy DeVos, Trump's nominee for Education Secretary, is a known advocate for charter schools, and charter schools, particularly in inner cities, are known to enforce stricter dress codes.
"Dress codes are all about policing bodies and policing, in my opinion, gender and gender expression," Evans said. "No student should be kicked out of class for what they are wearing or not wearing or not conforming to a certain idea of what it means to be a girl or a boy."
Evans said she expects there to be even more policing (“more bodies policed, more forms of criminalization, more police bodies”) in schools based on the current state of America’s political climate.
"A lot of the things that we are seeing introduced around the country are just more ways to criminalize kids, more ways to criminalize bodies, and the goal of the Let Her Learn campaign is to really invite the public to speak up on these issues and take an active role in diminishing the role of policing and the criminal justice system in our schools," she said. She mentioned a law in Missouri which ramps up the criminal punishments meted out for school fights.
The "Let Her Learn" campaign also comes with an online toolkit for students, parents and community activists. It includes statistics, a student’s civil rights guide and a step-by-step checklist with questions about school policies around punishments and dress codes. In the spring, the campaign plans to release a concrete platform with a specific policy agenda.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.