Rep. Ayanna Pressley (fifth from left) hosted a post-film discussion after a screening of “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools" at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 12. (Courtesy of Patricia McDougall)
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (fifth from left) hosted a post-film discussion after a screening of “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools" at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 12. (Courtesy of Patricia McDougall)

School should be a safe place to spark hopes and dreams of bright futures, but too often is a place where many African American children, especially girls, are targeted and end up behind bars.

This was the takeaway from the documentary “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” which premiered Thursday, Sept. 12 during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference. The event was hosted by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and featured a panel of prominent women who discussed the issue afterward.

“This film should be seen as tool,” said Monique W. Morris, the film’s executive producer. “It is an important tool to educate, but it is also important piece to co-construct a new climate [for girls] in our learning spaces.”

One could have heard a pin drop in the room at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center as five teenage girls told stories about how their schools turned them away from learning and toward trouble.

“I didn’t know what to do,” said Ariana, one of the students. “There was so much rage building up in me.”

Another, Samaya, said she thought about suicide.

“‘Why not go to heaven now?’” she recalled thinking. “I didn’t want to be here.”

Kiara said she got into a lot of fights in school; asked why, she said, “I wasn’t fighting for myself, I was fighting because I wanted to be loved.”

Emma said of her school, “I really wondered why they treated me like this. What’s wrong with me? There must be something.”

Several hundred packed the room for the post-film panel discussion that included Pressley; Advancement Project Executive Director Judith Browne Dianis; Wakimi Douglas, founder of Sisters Leadership Collective; educator Lindsa McIntyre, Massachusetts High Dchool Principal of the Year; youth advocate Naomi Wadler and Sade Ratliff, a freshman at Stonehill College.

“The stories that we heard today are profound and representative of the stories of millions of Black girls and women,” Pressley told the room.

“And here I am, a congresswoman, 45 years old, being told that I am disruptive and being insubordinate,” she said, a nod to the ire she and fellow freshmen Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have drawn from President Trump and right-wing critics.

But during the five-day conference, the four Democratic congresswomen collectively known as “The Squad” were warmly greeted everywhere they went, serving as modern-day pillars in the battle for respect for women of color.

McIntyre said too many young people are being wrongly forced into the criminal justice system for minor offenses by school resource officers who really function more as police officers, and part of the problem is “there is no outrage in our community.”

But while many ideas were offered, Wadler said it comes down to relationships: “Young people need more mentors.”

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Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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