Lately, there’s been a rise in school suspensions, expulsions, and other disciplinary actions across the country — primarily due to social isolation, poor mental health, and other traumas induced by the pandemic. Recently in New Jersey, a White boy and a Black boy got into a fight, and cops only tackled and arrested the Black eighth grader, while the White teen wondered aloud why he wasn’t also in handcuffs.

Black girls in particular are disproportionately disciplined, often for minor infractions such as “talking back.” A 13-year-old Florida girl was held in juvenile detention for seven days because someone hacked her Instagram and made threats to the school under her name.

It’s time to stop treating Black children like criminals in school.

That’s why Ed Trust and the NAACP LDF co-hosted an event recently on The Criminalization of Black Children. The discussion, led by The New York Times‘s Erica L. Green, who wrote the influential front-page story, “A Battle for the Souls of Black Girls,” and Kristin Henning, author of The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth, honed in on what can be done to ensure that in-school and out-of-school environments are safer for Black kids.

Denise Forte, Interim CEO, The Education Trust, said that these media stories of Black children being harshly disciplined “are not just isolated incidents, unfortunately.” Ed Trust is laser-focused on what’s happening to Black kids in and out of school, and is especially concerned with their social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD), and recently built a web tool of a 50-state scan of how states are handling SEAD.

Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary, Office for Civil Rights, Department of Education, said, “As the chief civil rights enforcer in the nation’s schools, the particular lens that I bring is the lens of racial discrimination,” she said. “We know that our kids learn lessons of schooling separate and apart from reading, writing, and arithmetic. And when we push children out of school, we teach them that schools are not ready for them, don’t believe in them, and won’t serve them. And those are usually Black students, students of color, and students with disabilities.”

Rashad Robinson, President, Color Of Change said, “We’re experiencing an effort to criminalize Black children, which only makes the position that students are in and the trajectory they’re on even worse.” Robinson also said that criminalizing children isn’t just about children, but all Black people. “When a school cop brutalizes a Black child, it lays the groundwork for how Black adults will be treated in every cycle of life,” he said.

Lisa Cylar Barrett, Director of Policy, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline and the impact of police in schools. “We know that Black students are overrepresented in referrals to law enforcement, in- and out-of-school suspensions, corporal punishment, and expulsions in every age group — from high school to preschool.”

“One of the things I learned while writing this book is that adolescence is a privilege. It’s a commodity that is absolutely denied to Black children,” Henning said, adding that this country is depriving Black children of being able to be young, and to play, and to laugh by criminalizing typical adolescent behavior.

“We as a country have bought into a false narrative that the only way to keep a school safe is through law enforcement,” Henning said. There are alternatives — social emotional learning, restorative justice, so many more—that are evidence-based that are far more effective.

Watch the full discussion here: