For the first time in a long time, C’alra Bradley felt a glint of hope.
It was an unfamiliar feeling for the then-18-year-old whose life had been disrupted and derailed by one roadblock after another. Once an A and B student who loved to read, she was living out of her white 1997 Toyota Avalon, on her own for three years, scrounging to get by.
But on July 18, 2016, as she attended one of her first classes at a GED and job training program in Houston, C’alra finally believed things were about to change.
She beamed as a career coach outlined the course ahead: the stipend for good attendance, the training on construction builds, the high school diploma at the end. C’alra (whose name is pronounced See-er-uh) could almost clasp the glimmer of a better life.
Then, with the coach’s next words, the vision evaporated: The students needed to wear work pants and closed-toe shoes for job sites.
A shadow flicked across C’alra’s face. The dress and flip-flops she wore were the only clothes she had. She had no money. No idea what to do.
After class ended, C’alra reached out to friends for help, but they were all strained for cash. She texted the career coach, but she was in Bible study.
C’alra was too afraid to confess why she was calling, worried that she would get booted from the program for being homeless. She was not used to getting sympathy or second chances.
So C’alra went to a nearby Walmart, stuffed a bra, two pairs of jeans, four panties, a pair of socks, foundation and lip gloss into a roomy purse and headed for the door.
As she neared the exit, a voice boomed: “We got you. We got you. Turn around.”
C’alra’s begged the security guard not to call the police. She told him that she needed the clothes for school. She offered to return the items, to find some way to pay.
The store official taunted her: “You are definitely going to jail.”
C’alra made a mistake; she readily admits that. But she had also been failed, time and time again, by flawed systems that are weighted against black girls.
She was written off as angry when she was simply trying to learn, hampered by teachers who were swift to punish, but not to listen. She was treated as an adult when she was still a child overwhelmed by the legal system.
In interviews conducted by USA TODAY with more than two dozen researchers, academics, educators, juvenile justice advocates, legal experts and black girls, the same message percolated again and again:
Black girls are being criminalized at alarming rates. They are hobbled by negative societal stereotypes that stretch back to slavery. By educators, counselors, caseworkers and judges who fail to address their trauma and emotional needs. By school discipline policies that push black girls out of school and punish them more often and more harshly than their white peers.
“They’re not allowed just to be and learn and heal and be girls,” said Monique Morris, author of “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” and president of National Black Women’s Justice Institute. “We see this criminalization of black girl joy that leads to them feeling as if they are culpable even if they are not.”
African American girls don’t misbehave more or commit more serious infractions, experts say, yet they often receive more severe penalties for the same behavior as white peers. They are nearly six times more likely to get out-of-school suspensionthan white counterparts, a report from the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies found, and more likely to be suspended multiple times than any other gender or race of students.
They are “adultified” at a young age, according to research by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, which found black girls face both racial and gender bias that feeds the misconception that they are more insubordinate and aggressive and less in need of nurturing and protection.
As a result, research from the Council of State Governments Justice Center concluded, black girls are at greater risk of dropping out or being held back,which in turn leads to a three-fold increase in the chances of becoming entangled in the juvenile justice system, and later, in the adult system.
“We celebrate Rosa Parks and talk about all of these women who were part of the construction of democracy,” Morris said. “Yet when black girls speak their truth they’re told that they are being disruptive to the learning process.”
The problem extends beyond the prejudice of an individual teacher or the personal bias of a school police officer, emphasized Francine Sherman, director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at Boston College Law School.
It is, Sherman and others say, the intentional result of institutional structures driven by racist underpinnings.
“Black girls are pushed to the side, not listened to. Qualities that should be seen as leadership qualities are seen as being disruptive or aggressive or assertive in a way that’s not respected,” she said. “The systems should know better, do know better.”
C’alra’s story reflects the ways society often trips up black girls and overlooks their potential — and how their sense of self can be buffeted by the pitfalls.
Nory Angel was struck by C’alra’s charisma and passion when the young woman first applied for the GED and job training program run by SER, a Houston non-profit.
“She stood out,” said Angel, then CEO of the organization, who saw a spark that radiated from C’alra’s desire to muscle her way to a better life.
C’alra immediately earned a spot in the program — one of the rare times in her life that things seemed to fall in place.
More often, people “gave up on me too soon. They didn’t care to help, or to see if I was dedicated to changing,” said C’alra, now 21. “People say the system is here to protect you, but I never felt protected. I always felt it was against me. Always.”
C’alra remembers her early childhood with a rosy fondness. Growing up in the “country” town of Hempstead, about an hour northwest of Houston, a place so small she knew most everyone within its five square miles. Being raised, along with a brother and sister, by her grandmother in a small, green house.
Back then, C’alra loved school. She tore through Junie B. Jones books, got As and Bs on her report cards, was always one of the last students standing in spelling bees. In fourth grade, she relished impressing classmates by correctly spelling “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Still, there were fissures just beneath the surface. A biological father who spent most of her childhood in prison. A mom and stepfather whose lives in Houston were marked by domestic squabbles and arrests for theft and drug possession. A lingering hurt because her mother left her and her two siblings but kept custody of six other children.
In sixth grade, the pressures from home spilled over at school. C’alra got into the kind of spat typical of middle school girls: One friend was annoyed with another classmate, then resented C’alra because she still spoke to that girl.
The disagreement turned into a scuffle in the cafeteria — and the girls ended up with in-school suspension. C’alra spent 30 days in an alternative classroom, falling behind on her regular class work and losing valuable instructional time. After that, she felt like she was perpetually scrambling to catch up.
In the second half of eighth grade, her grandmother suffered kidney failure that required regular dialysis and became too ill to care for her. At 14, C’alra moved to Houston — trading her rural town for a sprawling city she had never even visited before, a bedroom of her own in the green house for a pallet on the floor in her parents’ cramped apartment.
Her Houston middle school was chaotic — a place where students routinely talked back to the teachers and constantly disturbed class. When C’alra tried to quiet her classmates, she was usually the one written up for starting trouble.
More in-school suspension, more hours out of the classroom, more falling behind.
C’alra doesn’t remember any teacher or counselor ever asking her what was going on, no one ever inquiring about problems at home or in school. The default was always discipline.
According to a report by the National Women’s Law Center, black girls are more likely to be suspended than white girls in every state — not because of greater misconduct on their part, but because of biased perceptions by teachers and administrators.
They are dismissed as combative, as C’alra was, for speaking up in class or trying to engage with the teacher. They are penalized more often for dress code violations overlooked in white students or for wearing culturally specific hairstyles and clothes.
In Camden, New Jersey, for example, a charter high school student who wore a Nigerian head wrap for this year’s Black History Month observation was told to remove the scarf or serve in-school suspension for violating dress code. In 2017, black female students at a charter high school in Malden, just outside Boston, were put in detention and threatened with suspension for wearing box braids.
Even laughing has landed some black girls in trouble, as was the case in January when four 12-year-old middle school students in Binghamton, New York, were strip searched because they seemed giddy during lunch hour.
Nia Evans, manager of campaign and digital strategies for the National Women’s Law Center, traces the disproportionate disciplining of black girls to three main drivers: a convergence of racial and gender stereotypes, overly harsh and vague policies, and punishment of trauma.
African American girls are often unfairly viewed as hypersexualized, more dangerous than their peers and in need of more control. Educators penalize them for subjective infractions such as “being distracting” or “having an attitude.” They are twice as likely as black boys to be disciplined for “disobedience.”
Black girls are also less likely to get resources in the wake of adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect and sexual assault, and less likely to be believed and supported after trauma.
The disparities caused by those biases start as young as pre-school, where black girls make up about 20 percent of female enrollment but 54 percent of girls suspended, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Overall, researchers found, black girls were 15.6 percent of girls enrolled, but 36.6 percent of girls getting in-school suspensions and more than half of those who received multiple suspensions.
Disciplinary actions not only result in lost classroom time and stalled academic progress, but they also erode self-esteem and reinforce the idea that black girls are not welcome in class.
That’s what happened with C’alra. The spelling bee aficionado who had always prized learning began to dread going to school.
In ninth grade, it would only get worse.
Photo Credit: Atlanta Black Star