#MeToo in LAUSD Schools: Sexual Violence and African American Girls

On March 21, 2018, seven students from WLP Dorsey participated in an interview with KPFK’s Feminist Magazine.  The interview focused on the racial politics of the #MeToo movement and the marginalization of African American girls’ activism.  Students discussed “misogynoirist” images (racist gender norms, stereotypes and misperceptions that are specifically aimed at black women and girls) and their efforts to raise awareness about the culturally specific impact of sexual violence, sexual abuse, sex trafficking, harassment, and homophobia on black girls in LAUSD schools.  Nationwide, nearly sixty percent of African American girls have experienced sexual abuse by the age of 18. Because of misogynoir and economic inequities, African American girls are also less likely to report sexual abuse and receive trauma care than are white girls. Students and faculty advisor Ashunda Norris stressed the need for mandatory culturally responsive sexual harassment prevention training for K-12 schools that is geared toward communities of color.  WLP also highlighted the nexus between over-policing, “random” searches and other criminalizing efforts that disproportionately target black students and precipitate pushout of black girls.

#MeToo in Our Schools: Hearing Black Girls in the Sexual Abuse Backlash

By Sikivu Hutchinson and Ashunda Norris


In 1991, African American law professor Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas transformed her into a feminist icon in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace. Building on Hill’s legacy, women in corporate America, state and federal government, college campuses, and the entertainment industry have exposed perpetrators, challenged victim-blaming, and mainstreamed a #MeToo movement that was initiated by Tarana Burke, a black woman. Yet, when we turn on the TV and see debates about this brave, new heightened consciousness, the faces and voices of black women and girls are often missing. This is despite the fact that approximately 34-50% of African American girls have experienced child sexual abuse.

As educators and mentors in Los Angeles schools, we see how they have become fertile ground for unchecked sexual harassment and sexual violence. In an informal survey conducted at three South L.A. high schools by the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP), a majority of girls of color felt unsafe on campus and had experienced some form of sexual harassment. Some felt victimized by a jock culture that encourages boys to openly rate girls’ bodies, sex partners, and desirability, spilling over into toxic social media attacks. As a result of these experiences, respondents said that they felt less confident about themselves and did not feel supported at school. For many girls, going to school in an environment where sexual harassment is normalized can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and self-harm.

Sexual harassment in schools often takes the form of catcalling, touching, ogling and being called out of one’s name. Terms like “bitch”, “ho”, “ratchet”, “thot” (that *h* over there) are frequently used to demean African American girls in ways that echo their specific history of institutionalized rape and dehumanization in the U.S. under slavery. As a form of sexual harassment, use of these terms reinforce a violent culture and climate that is normalized by a “boys will be boys” mentality. This mentality is often cosigned by teachers and administrators. As a result, girls find that simply walking around campus becomes a minefield fueled by widespread ignorance about behaviors that qualify as harassment.

Shania Malone, a member of the WLP, and a senior at Dorsey High School who is openly bisexual, says that she has been harassed by a female student. Malone also shared that she attempts to take preventive measures to curb sexual comments. “I usually wear my backpack really low to cover my butt. I also wear clothes to cover up my shape and curves.”

Serenity Smith, another senior at Dorsey, related that she has been made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe at school. Young men frequently joke about her body. “They think they can say stuff like: ‘I’ll blow your back out, your ass is looking mighty fine today, and your pussy is showing today’ and not get into trouble because their behavior is justified.”

The sexualization of black girls at very young ages contributes to an atmosphere where sexual violence against them is viewed as inconsequential. If black girls are stereotyped as “unrapeable”, then everyday sexual harassment is something that “they bring onto themselves”.

A recent Georgetown University study on cultural perceptions about black girls concluded that they are widely viewed as more mature, less innocent, and less in need of protection than white girls. Racist, sexist perceptions such as these contribute to higher rates of suspension, expulsion, and incarceration among black girls. According to the African American Policy Forum, black girls are routinely overpoliced in public school environments. On a national level, black girls are suspended nearly six times more than white girls, and are more harshly disciplined for lesser or similar offenses than white girls. Further, the Human Rights for Girls advocacy organization has concluded that exposure to “sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.” These factors, coupled with a culture that condones sexual violence against them, make many black girls feel that they have nowhere to turn when they are victimized.

Dorsey senior and WLP member Tayah Hubbard stressed that many black girls feel like they won’t be believed if they tell someone they’ve been sexually harassed or abused. For Hubbard, “black girls are told ‘oh you’re strong and you can get through it.” Hubbard sees a connection between the dearth of social services, after school programs, and counselors in predominantly black and Latino schools and the high numbers of students who are pipelined into prisons instead of college.

Hubbard and her peers in the WLP recently led sexual harassment prevention workshops with classmates of all genders. But although new sexual harassment policies are being touted on Capitol Hill and in the State Legislature, sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention education that speaks to the specific circumstances of girls of color is not part of the curriculum in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The #MeToo movement has disrupted the national status quo of silence and invisibility around sexual harassment, yet, when it comes to validating the experiences of girls in communities of color, the silence is still deafening.


Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, a feminist of color high school mentoring program.

Ashunda Norris is a filmmaker, poet, community builder and teacher whose most recent work as a filmmaker has screened internationally, including Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya. Her writing has appeared in The Rush MagazineL.A. School Reportand DC Metro Theatre Arts.

The LAUSD’s Multi-Million Dollar Police State: End Random Searches Now

By: Sikivu Hutchinson

It’s Thursday morning and a line of students snakes out of the door of an English classroom and into the breezeway of a South Los Angeles high school. Their backpacks have been dumped on the ground and wrenched open, notebooks spilling out underfoot as school security personnel pace around the students barking out orders. A “random” mandatory search has begun, and students mill about agitated, rousted from instruction for a virtual “perp” roundup that wouldn’t be out of place on an A&E reality cop show.

This is the not so new normal in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the nation and one of the few to conduct so-called random mandatory searches on its campuses. Implemented in 2015, the policy requires wand and metal detector searches of students on all LAUSD secondary campuses (including charter schools and span schools that have students in the 6th-12th grades). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the use of random searches in schools declined from 7% in 2000 to 4% in 2014.Bucking this trend, the LAUSD stubbornly clings to searches as its police apparatus has ballooned out of control. In a recent UCLA study, the majority of the district’s college counselors reported that they have insufficient time with students. As a result, students often receive less college assistance than they need. The study also reaffirmed that college-preparedness, college-going and completion rates among Black and Latinx students consistently lagged behind that of white and Asian students. Thus, while students of color fight for quality time with the few programming counselors and college counselors there are, school police at South and East Los Angeles LAUSD campuses are in full force, patrolling school grounds and harassing students for minor dress code violations that disproportionately target Black and Latinx youth.

Nationwide, the pervasiveness of police on school campuses has become a touchstone for student- teacher activism and coalition-building. Outraged by the increasing criminalization of LAUSD youth, the city-wide Students Deserve (SD) coalition has brought together a broad cross-section of students, teachers, parents, activists (Youth Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter L.A.) and civil rights groups to challenge the District’s overemphasis on suppression at the expense of funding for counselors, support resources, ethnic studies and culturally responsive education. As SD staff organizer Maricela Lopez notes, a big part of that battle is engaging parents who may believe that searches are a lesser evil. Ultimately, she says, the question becomes, “Who are you the parent of? Are you the parent of a young Black student that’s being targeted the most? These searches are not random and they’re happening to a specific group of students.”

Dorsey High School senior and SD member Tayah Hubbard has experienced the searches firsthand and feels that they undermine her pursuit of a quality education. Last spring, Hubbard took part in a demonstration at the LAUSD School Board in which hundreds of students criticized the impact of searches on the climate of their schools. As she notes, “Police take away Sharpies and highlighters and white out on the grounds that people will tag but there isn’t any tagging.” She also maintains that “Black girls are targeted for wearing scarves or head wraps.” She has personally been told that she would be given detention for doing so, and believes that Black girls are unfairly singled out for not conforming to school policies that penalize them for their body types and cultural traditions.

Sexist, racist and homophobic targeting and harassment of African American girls in schools has been well documented. Nationwide, African American girls have some of the highest rates of suspension and expulsion next to Black boys and are six times more likely than white girls to receive harsh discipline. Compounding matters, Black girls are more likely to experience a high level of “interpersonal violence” from peers, family and community members. Indeed, according to the African American Policy (AAPF) Institute, “In environments in which discipline is emphasized over counseling, girls who struggle with trauma and other unmet needs may come to the attention of school personnel only when their behavior leads to punishable offenses”. Here, climates with harsh discipline dissuade Black girls from coming to school and may even “exacerbate the vulnerability of girls to harassing behavior because it penalizes them for defending themselves against such acts”.

Subscribe to The Morning Email.

Wake up to the day's most important news.

 

 

Although district policy states that “No student or persons shall be selected to be searched based solely upon their gender, race, ethnicity, physical appearance, manner of dress, or association with any particular group of persons” the practice of singling out Black girls for wearing head wraps and scarves belies this. Moreover, Black female students in the LAUSD have reported that they receive more scrutiny and discipline for wearing clothes that are considered to be too “tight” or “revealing”. Gardena High School Women’s Leadership Project students Zorrie Petrus and Kendra Taylor reported that boys are seldom called out for wearing ripped jeans to school but girls are frequently hauled into the dean’s office. This pattern of selective discipline is evidenced in other school districts where Black female students have been singled out and harassed for wearing braided hairstyles, locks and natural hair.

Dorsey High English teacher Ashunda Norris echoes Hubbard’s concern about race and gender disparities. Norris first encountered the search policy when she was giving her students a test. School police came into her classroom and made students put their hands on their desks. This invasive experience motivated Norris and colleague Sharonne Hapuarachy to become get involved with Students Deserve. Hapuarachy, a twenty year English teacher, said that the random search experience “was really frightening. They don’t tell teachers ahead of time. It was very destructive and it was hard to refocus and move on.”

Students Deserve is calling for an end to all searches, in addition to a pilot study which would evaluate schools that have successfully implemented restorative justice initiatives toward the broader goal of transformative justice (which focuses on dismantling the structures of oppression and inequity that perpetuate community violence). Restorative justice is a holistic approach to discipline that relies upon relationship-building, community-building and dialogue rather than referrals, detention and suspension. Victims and perpetrators engage in a collective process in which they publicly address the impact of harmful acts on both the victim and the community at large. Restorative justice is designed to allow school-communities to devise culturally responsive solutions that redress the criminalizing outcomes of zero tolerance policies. Some teachers and other critics argue that it is a palliative approach that has been poorly implemented in a district reeling from the consequences of coddling disruptive students. Some point to the District’s ban on suspensions for “willful defiance” (a charge that was disproportionately used to target and discipline Black students) as leading to classrooms where “anything goes”. The LAUSD was the first major urban district to end willful defiance suspensions after years of community agitation. Yet, although the number of suspensions has dropped in the district, African American students are still disproportionately suspended and culturally responsive alternatives to punitive discipline have not been widely adopted.

Indeed, the district’s support for restorative justice programming has been piecemeal. Over the past several years it has been slow to fund restorative justice counselors, only increasing the number of positions from five to twenty five as a result of community pressure. Dorsey High’s Sharonne Hapuarachy noted that although her school “had a restorative justice counselor [coverage] wasn’t consistent and staff as a whole hadn’t bought into the practice”. One former LAUSD restorative justice professional I spoke to said that, “As soon as a school is doing well [with implementing restorative justice] it seems that the funding is gone. I was only able to do a limited amount of trainings because there was not a commitment. Restorative justice is about institutionalizing a culture of caring and consistent affirmation of students’ backgrounds and cultural knowledge. But veteran teachers may subscribe to a punitive mindset, and it’s difficult to convince some that restorative justice is worthwhile.”

The majority of the district’s high schools do not have restorative justice counselors. And the overall LAUSD budget for restorative justice is around $10.8 million.

By contrast, the district has allocated millions more to school police, weaponry and surveillance systems. In 2016, the school board approved a 14% increase in funding for police, bringing its pot to $67 million. According to the L.A. School Report, the increases were due to “salary, healthcare benefits and pension payments”. Nonetheless, the district claims to be dedicated to a full rollout of restorative justice programming by the 2019-2020 school year. Pushback from local schools highlights both the inadequacy of the district’s outreach efforts and the tenuousness of its stated long term goal. In the meantime, Students Deserve is pressuring the seven-member school board and Superintendent Michelle King to stop criminalizing students and make good on the lip service they’ve given to restorative justice, culturally responsive education, and college prep opportunities. In a region that has the largest juvenile incarcerated population in the nation, the district’s complicity in upholding state violence can no longer be ignored.

Future of Feminism '17

By: Sikivu Hutchinson

On May 25th, approximately 130 youth and adult attendees participated in the “Future of Feminism” conference for girls of color and allies of all genders at the Foundation Center in South L.A.  Spearheaded by young women of color with a focus on intersectional feminism, the L.A. County Human Relations Commission and Women’s Leadership Project conference was the first of its kind in South L.A.  Participating schools and organizations included Dorsey High School, King-Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, Gardena High School, Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, Fremont High School, LAUSD School Police, David & Margaret Youth and Family Services, Barrio Youth in Action and the L.A. Commission for Children and Families. 

Top Left to Bottom Right: (WLP Workshop: Challenging 'Isms: Heterosexism, colorism & sexism pt. 1 ; WLP Panel Discussion ; MC HS: Intersectionality, Sexual Violence & Homelessness ; Challenging 'Isms: Heterosexism, colorism & sexism pt. 2)

Students attended youth-led workshops on the intersection of sexual violence and homelessness; media representation, mental health and intimate partner violence; combatting every day sexism, racism, colorism and heterosexism at school campuses; redressing the school-to-prison pipeline through transformative justice; and deconstructing transphobia and homophobia through the examination of social norms such as dress, speech and gender-coded behavior.  Partner organizations Youth Justice Coalition, Media Done Responsibly, Peace Over Violence and the GSA Network (in collaboration with Fremont HS and the Trans Youth Support Network) provided support.  

Left to Right:  Clay Wesley & Kennedy Moore ; KD Students reflect on gender, race and class ; GSA/Trans Youth Support Network Gender Box museum 

 The conference was emceed by WLP alums Kennedy Moore (2016) and Clay Wesley (2009).  WLP health educator Issachar Curbeon opened the event with a video highlighting WLP youth perspectives on intersectional feminism.  Issachar and former WLP intern Marlene Montanez co- moderated a feminism and advocacy panel featuring WLP college alum from UCLA, UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, Mt St Mary's University, CSUN, CSULB, El Camino College and UCSC.  Panelists Miani Giron, Liz Soria, Marenda Kyle, Dercy De La Cruz and DJ/activist Kumi James gave their perspectives on identity, colorism, navigating racism/sexism and white supremacy in academia, pushing back against Eurocentric beauty standards, and community activism.  The event concluded with a commentary and presentation by King-Drew Leadership and Feminism Club students on the Vagina Monologues and its significance for women's rights, civil liberties, free speech and feminist self-determination.  The reading was based on a student-led production mounted at King-Drew during the spring semester for Women’s Day, a mandatory school-wide event focusing on gender justice and anti-sexism.  St. John’s Health Center, the Youth Justice Coalition and the Positive Results Corporation provided informational resource tables for conference participants. 

 

Denim Day '17: Youth Leaders of Color on Ending Rape Culture and Sexual Violence

By: Sikivu Hutchinson

On Denim Day, April 26, 2017, 10th-12th grade students from the Women's Leadership Project (WLP) and Young Male Scholars' (YMS) programs at Gardena High School and King Drew Magnet of Medicine and Science conducted sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention workshops with over one hundred and twenty students in health, math, social studies and Advisory classes.  Students discussed the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment on school campuses and communities, the stereotypes associated with rape and sexual assault victims, and the normalization of violence against women and girls of color in mainstream society. 

 YMS/WLP leaders Folarin Oguntayo, Ashley Rojas, Deaven Rector & Sidney Onyenachi

YMS/WLP leaders Folarin Oguntayo, Ashley Rojas, Deaven Rector & Sidney Onyenachi

 Markell and Markease Harris break "coercion vs. consent" down

Markell and Markease Harris break "coercion vs. consent" down

Despite being marginalized inmainstream media representations of sexual violence victimization (which tend to foreground the experiences and lives of white victims), African American women have some of the highest rates of rape and sexual assault, with nearly 60%of Black girls reporting sexual abuse victimization by the age of eighteen. 

Students engaged in debate about the implications of victim-blaming and victim-shaming for sexualviolence victims and survivors, as well as the often fraught issue of giving consent in a relationship.  Speaking as male allies, peer educator leaders from YMS stepped up about male responsibility for being aware that "no means no" and being conscious that sexual violence can happen across gender identity and sexual orientation.  Students were informed about the low rates of reporting among African American women violence victims, the prevalence of social media predation, cyberbullying and sex trafficking as well as recent examples of sexual harassment in sports, entertainment and politics with high profile offenders like Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump and Bill Cosby.

 WLP/GHS Gardena on "victim-shaming"

WLP/GHS Gardena on "victim-shaming"

 WLP King-Drew Adebayo, Drea & Dawnyai on queer youth & sexual assault

WLP King-Drew Adebayo, Drea & Dawnyai on queer youth & sexual assault

Students also underscored the role homophobia and transphobia play in silencing male and LGBTQI sexual violence victims and addressed the lack of safe spaces for male survivors in the dominant culture. The similarities, nuances and pervasiveness of marital rape, date rape, familial rape/incest and statutory rape were also addressed. WLP coordinator Issachar Curbeon and peer educator leaders Sidney Onyenachi, Deaven Rector, Ashley Rojas, Markell and Markease Harris, Jasmine Townsend, Folarin Oguntayo, Zorrie Petrus, Eva Mancias, Lucina Ambriz, Shondrea Wooden, Dawnyai Hardy and Adebayo Ojute did an outstanding job of debunking myths and misconceptions about rape culture while educating fellow students about resisting and protecting themselves against sexual violence and sexual harassment.