STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — To hear Mikia Hutchings speak, one must lean in close, as her voice barely rises above a whisper. In report cards, her teachers describe her as “very focused,” someone who follows the rules and stays on task. So it was a surprise for her grandmother when Mikia, 12, and a friend got into trouble for writing graffiti on the walls of a gym bathroom at Dutchtown Middle School in Henry County last year.
Even more of a surprise was the penalty after her family disputed the role she was accused of playing in the vandalism and said it could not pay about $100 in restitution. While both students were suspended from school for a few days, Mikia had to face a school disciplinary hearing and, a few weeks later, a visit by a uniformed officer from the local Sheriff’s Department, who served her grandmother with papers accusing Mikia of a trespassing misdemeanor and, potentially, a felony.
As part of an agreement with the state to have the charges dismissed in juvenile court, Mikia admitted to the allegations of criminal trespassing. Mikia, who is African-American, spent her summer on probation, under a 7 p.m. curfew, and had to complete 16 hours of community service in addition to writing an apology letter to a student whose sneakers were defaced in the incident.
Her friend, who is white, was let go after her parents paid restitution.
For all the attention placed on problems that black boys facein terms of school discipline and criminal justice, there is increasing focus on the way those issues affect black girls as well.
Data from the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education show that from 2011 to 2012, black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12 percent, compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls, and more than girls of any other race or ethnicity. In Georgia, the ratio of black girls receiving suspensions in the same period compared with white girls was 5 to 1, and in Henry County, that ratio was 2.3 to 1, said J D Hardin, the spokesman for the county’s school district. And researchers say that within minority groups, darker-skinned girls are disciplined more harshly than light-skinned ones.
Michael J. Tafelski, a lawyer from the Georgia Legal Services Program who represented Mikia in the school disciplinary hearing, and advocates for students say the punishment Mikia faced was an example of racial disparities in school discipline.
In response to the actions taken against Mikia, Mr. Tafelski said his office had filed a complaint with the Justice Department claiming racial discrimination and a violation of the Civil Rights Act. “I’ve never had a white kid call me for representation in Henry County,” Mr. Tafelski said.
“What kid needs to be having a conversation with a lawyer about the right to remain silent?” he said. “White kids don’t have those conversations; black kids do.”
According to Mikia, her only offense was writing the word “Hi” on a bathroom stall door, while her friend scribbled the rest of the graffiti. “I only wrote one word, and I had to do all that,” Mikia said in a recent interview. “It isn’t fair.”
“She couldn’t eat; she was scared” after the officer visited her home, said Kenji Roberts, Mikia’s grandmother and legal guardian. Mr. Hardin, of the Henry County school district, said that, for privacy reasons, the district could not comment on her case, but that it had set up a committee to review its disciplinary procedures.
Edward Perkey, the father of Mikia’s friend, said that both girls were guilty of vandalism and that race had nothing to do with their disparate treatment. “They were caught red-handed,” he said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Perkey said paying restitution seemed to have been the reason that his daughter had avoided further discipline. He said school officials had told him, “Take care of the damages, pay for the damaged shoes, and we’ll move on past this.”
Mikia’s case is not unique. At a sparsely attended committee meeting in Henry County where school officials, advocates and elected officials gathered to address discipline methods in the county, a handful of parents of black girls shared their stories. Sakinah White, a single mother of three who is an elementary schoolteacher in nearby Clayton County, said her 17-year-old daughter had been treated unfairly after she was expelled from her high school over an incident in which she was accused of hitting a white male student with a book. Criminal charges were also filed in the juvenile court system, Ms. White said.
“It’s a form of child abuse,” she said.
After a semester-long expulsion, her daughter became suicidal, Ms. White said, and began cutting herself with soda can tops. Ultimately, the criminal charges were dropped, Ms. White said, and the state board of education reversed the expulsion.
Ms. White and Ms. Roberts said their girls were enrolled in extracurricular activities like cheerleading and doing well academically. The women said they thought their daughter and granddaughter had been presumed guilty before the disciplinary hearings at their schools began. “All of this is subjective because it’s me and my daughter’s word against his word,” Ms. White said, referring to the school principal.
Another thing the girls have in common is dark skin color,which researchers at Villanova University say affects the likelihood of being suspended. An analysis by Villanova researchers of data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicated that black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.
There are different gender expectations for black girls compared with white girls, said Lance Hannon, a Villanova sociology professor who conducted the analysis. And, he said, there are different expectations within cross-sections of black girls. “When a darker-skinned African-American female acts up, there’s a certain concern about their boyish aggressiveness,” Dr. Hannon said, “that they don’t know their place as a female, as a woman.”
Compared with black boys, who are disciplined at higher rates than boys of other races and ethnicities, researchers say black girls tend to be penalized more subjectively, like for having a bad attitude or being defiant.
Jamilia Blake, an associate professor of educational psychology at Texas A&M University, said that while black boys are seen as threatening, black girls are often seen as “unsophisticated, hypersexualized and defiant.”
Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, whose office published a report on school discipline in March that offered recommendations for how to improve disciplinary practices in schools, said the discrepancies in disciplinary practices were not lost on young girls of color. “The felt experience of too many of our girls in school is that they are being discriminated against,” she said.
“The message we send when we suspend or expel any student is that that student is not worthy of being in the school,” Ms. Lhamon said. “That is a pretty ugly message to internalize and very, very difficult to get past as part of an educational career.”