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In Washington, Trauma Feeds the School-To-Prison Pipeline, Particularly for Girls

Identifying and responding to students' trauma early could help plug the school-to-prison pipeline for girls of color—but disproportionate discipline of these students is more likely to exacerbate the damage to these students.

A report released Thursday by Georgetown University's Juvenile Justice Initiative and the nonprofit advocacy group Rights for Girls found girls in Washington D.C. are being arrested and incarcerated more often and younger than in years past—and black girls are now 30 times as likely to be arrested as white girls.

Girls' rising share of the District's juvenile justice population is a more extreme version of a national trend. The number of young people in residential corrections facilities nationwide has been nearly halved in the last decade, from roughly 93,000 in 2006 to 48,000 in 2015, the most recent year of U.S. Justice Department data show. But the number of girls arrested and confined has fallen much more slowly—and in some districts like Washington, it has risen. Arrests for girls in the district have increased by 87 percent in the past decade, even as arrests for boys declined 22 percent.

"We do see a difference in what girls get arrested for versus what boys get arrested for in D.C.," said Eduardo Ferrer, co-author of the report for the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative. The report found 86 percent of girls' arrests in the District were for non-violent offenses; the most common violent crime was simple assault. 

"Girls are being criminalized for behavior that doesn't really pose a threat to public safety," such as fights, said Yasmin Vafa, Rights4Girls executive director and co-author of the report. "We're seeing an increase in policies, including exclusionary school discipline policies, that label girls' behavior as problematic and unladylike."

Signs of Trauma

Moreover, she said, they found many arrests related to fights at school, prostitution, and other behaviors that can signal a higher risk that a student is being abused or trafficked. The report noted 75 percent of all girls in U.S. juvenile justice facilities have a history of sexual or physical abuse. 

Among D.C. students in the study, black girls also suffered the highest rates of "adverse childhood experiences," intense trauma such as physical and sexual abuse that research has shown can significantly increase their risk of poor education ad health outcomes as adults. Two-thirds of black girls in the study had experienced at least one of these experienced, a rate four times as high as those of white girls.

Entering the justice system can compound those problems for students. Nationwide, more than 30 percent of all those in juvenile justice facilities are now girls, though those facilities often aren't well-structured for them. A separate report last month by the Southern Poverty Law Center found incarcerated girls are more likely to be held in segregated areas with limited access to educational programs. 

"Because boys have made up the majority of the system for so long, it has naturally developed in a way that was more responsive to boys. ... girls were almost an afterthought," Ferrer said.

The report comes as Congress debates an update of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, the main federal law governing incarcerated children, which is more than a decade overdue for reauthorization. Advocates have argued for more trauma-informed care and better coordination with schools in the next iteration of the law. 

You can learn more about how some schools and juvenile facilities are working to improve teaching and learning for students behind bars in our special report, including a photo essay on one day in an innovative girls' correctional school and a map of how many hours of instruction incarcerated students typically get in your state.


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