News Room

Speaker explores mindset of girls involved in fight at University Preparatory HS

Mar. 9, 2016 – TribLive – by Elizabeth Behrman

Before her trip to Pittsburgh, Monique Morris said she read about last week’s brawl involving 30 female students at University Preparatory High School. 

She saw a video in which a student said the Hill District school is a place “where you got to fight.”

“That stopped me,” said Morris, a national expert and author on social justice. “It begs the question: How have we created a culture where a child says this?”

Morris, who lives in San Francisco, spoke to about 200 people Wednesday night at the August Wilson Center. She was invited by the Education Law Center, A+ Schools and other advocacy groups to speak about her new book, “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.”

Her book, to be released this month, talks about how school climate and discriminatory discipline practices contribute to the “criminalization” of black girls and their involvement with the juvenile justice system.

Nationally, Morris said, black girls make up 16 percent of the female student population. They also make up 45 percent of the girls who receive out-of-school suspensions; 46 percent of girls who receive in-school suspensions; and 42 percent of girls who are expelled. About 31 percent of them are referred to law enforcement.

The fight at UPrep, which resulted in the suspensions of the 30 girls and the addition of security forces at the school, “fits in well” with her discussion, Morris said.

“I think there are some critical opportunities for us to explore,” she said. “Sometimes we ask the wrong questions. We tend to ask the questions, ‘What did she do?’ rather than ‘What happened?’ or ‘Why?’ ”

District and school officials now can focus on why fighting is a “necessity” at the school and work out a plan to ensure that students and staff feel safe, she said.

“These are tensions that won’t go away unless you address it head on,” Morris said. “You have to talk about it.”

During a school board committee meeting Tuesday night, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane said the 30 students involved in the UPrep fight were suspended. District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the girls face charges.

The district is investigating and working on plans to “reintegrate” the girls into their classes when they return. Lane told the board that she is embarrassed by the girls’ actions but would meet with them to ensure that the issues are addressed.

“They’re still our girls, and they still need help,” Lane said.

The correlation between school discipline and the “school-to-prison pipeline” is a topic more commonly discussed with black boys, Morris said.

But black girls are just behind the boys in suspension and expulsion rates. They face discrimination when they are disciplined for things like violating the dress code or their tone of voice when they ask a question in class.

“If we want to address criminalization, we have to address the learning that goes on with girls,” she said.

Perry High School student Samantha Upsher, 16, said she has not experienced discriminatory disciplinary practices but has heard about it at other schools.

She attended Morris’ talk and got a free early copy of her book.

“I think it’s a powerful message,” Upsher said. “It’s just something that people don’t think about.”