Impossible to Erase: the Disparate Impact of Zero Tolerance Policies on Black Girls with and without Disabilities

By: Liza Davis
Associate Editor, Vol. 26

On January 29, 2021 and in the middle of a mental health crisis, a 9-year-old Black girl was handcuffed, forced into a squad car, and pepper sprayed by Rochester, NY police officers who then told her, “‘You did it to yourself, hun.’”[1] In May 2020, a 15-year-old Black girl with ADHD was imprisoned for over two months during the coronavirus pandemic for violating her probation by failing to submit homework assignments.[2] In September 2019, a 6-year-old Black girl was handcuffed, taken by police car to a juvenile detention center, fingerprinted, had a mugshot taken, and was charged with battery after kicking teachers during a tantrum caused by her sleep apnea-induced lack of sleep.[3]

Stories like these are a common and direct corollary to zero tolerance disciplinary policies that originated with the 1994 Gun Free Schools Act signed by President Bill Clinton.[4] Zero tolerance policies have permitted schools to introduce police officers, pat-downs, and other “security measures to monitor student behavior.”[5] While the “original intent” of zero tolerance policy was to “safeguard school staff and children from acts of violence,” these procedures have been used to disproportionately “sanction Black children for noncriminal violations and, in many cases, have resulted in lesser penalties (if any at all) for white students.”[6] Zero tolerance also relies heavily on the removal of students from the classroom through out-of-school suspension, in-school suspension, and discipline alternative education.[7] Despite the widespread reality of punitive violence against Black girls with and without disabilities in school, data has tended to focus on disciplinary disparities that impact Black students generally, boys, and students with disabilities, [8] obscuring the impact of exclusionary school punishment on Black girls with and without disabilities.

What is currently known about the impact of zero tolerance policies and exclusionary discipline on Black girls with and without disabilities is frightening. Studies conducted in 2012 showed that Black girls with “one or more disabilities experienced the highest rate of suspension of all girls” in the 10 school districts with the highest suspension rates nationally.[9] A 2015 study found that while Black girls and boys “share a common racialized risk of punishment in school, Black girls face a statistically greater chance of suspension and expulsion compared to other students of the same gender.”[10] As an example, the study found that “Black girls in New York were nearly ten times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts and in Boston, they were suspended at almost twelve times the rate of white girls.”[11] On the national level, although Black girls only make up 17% of the overall student population, they represent “31% of girls referred to law enforcement by school officials and 43% of those arrested on school grounds.”[12] Furthermore, once Black girls have had contact with the criminal justice system, they often receive “harsher sentences than other girls for the same offenses.”[13]

Further statistical research must focus on the specific punitive disparities that Black girls with and without disabilities face to highlight the intersectional reasons why Black girls are punished more harshly than girls of other races and for reasons distinct from those for punishing Black boys. Black children are often subjected to a phenomenon called adultification – which has roots in severe, slavery-era punishments of Black children – for exhibiting normal, child-like behaviors. [14] This adultificatioin results in differential legal treatment for Black and white children who are merely acting like children.[15] Adultification leads adults to perceive and respond to Black children as if they are much older than their age, which impacts Black girls in a nuanced and troubling manner: “Black girls are likened more to adults than to children and are treated as if they are willfully engaging in behaviors typically expected of Black women. This compression… [has] stripped Black girls of their childhood freedoms [and]… renders Black girlhood interchangeable with Black womanhood.”[16] 

Because zero tolerance policies are subject to localities’ “significant discretion in determining what kinds of student behavior will result in disciplinary action,” the inappropriate conflation of Black girls with Black women allows educators to punish and exclude Black girls from the classroom under vague, subjective infractions such as “willful defiance.”[17] This is because there is bias against Black women, imputed to Black girls, in the form of derogatory stereotypes that depict Black women as hypersexual, aggressive, loud, sassy, and dominant. When educators use stereotypes to interpret Black girls’ behavior, and when Black girls behave in ways that do not conform with “traditional standards” of white, middle-class “femininity in which girls are expected to be docile, diffident, and selfless,” they are punished more harshly through “‘patterns of discipline intended to re-form the femininity of African-American girls into something more “acceptable.”’”[18]

Photographer: Ana Brown Photo + Film | Copyright: Ana Brown Photo + Film/Salt Lake Tribune

Educators’ weaponization of stereotypes about Black womanhood against Black girls further exacerbates the suspension risks that Black girls with disabilities face when considered alongside their disability status. Although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) is intended to ensure students with disabilities have equal access to public education, schools’ reliance on disciplinary exclusion categorically impedes that purpose.[19] The impact of schools’ reliance on exclusionary discipline falls disproportionately on Black students, particularly those who are “identified under the IDEA category of emotional disturbance,”[20] and those who have disabilities. Notably, being a Black student with disabilities is “associated with a 3.6 times greater risk of suspension” compared to the risk faced by white students with disabilities.[21] Although white girls with disabilities make up about 18% of the total population of students with disabilities, they account for only 2% of suspended girls with disabilities.[22] Black girls make up 6% of the total population of students with disabilities, yet they account for 19% of girls with disabilities who are suspended, showcasing a gross overrepresentation of Black girls with disabilities in exclusionary school discipline.[23]

As the stories mentioned above illuminate, Black girls are often subjected to violent and exclusionary punishment by educators and the criminal justice system for behaviors related to their disabilities,[24] directly violating IDEA’s mandate to consider “the effects of a child’s disability” when taking disciplinary action.[25] But that mandate may not be incredibly helpful for Black girls with disabilities because when educators consider whether the student’s disciplined behavior was caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to, the student’s disability,[26] educators may inappropriately stereotype a Black girl’s disability-related behavior as a threatening failure to comply with traditional norms of white femininity. Failing to recognize the relationship between a Black disabled girl’s disability and the behavior for which she is being punished is a direct result of “anti-Blackness and white supremacy[’s]” dependence on ableism, which leads educators to believe that “the behavior and thinking of Black disabled girls are so damaged that they can only be fixed by physical coercion or jail.”[27]

So long as Black disabled girls are not centered in conversations about the impact of exclusionary discipline, interventions designed to dull the impact of zero tolerance policies will fail to fill critical intersectional gaps to protect marginalized students against unnecessary, arbitrary, and overly punitive exclusions from the classroom.

[1] Marcia Greenwood, Will Cleveland, & Brian Sharp, Rochester, New York, Police Release Bodycam Videos to Show Officers were ‘Required’ to Handcuff, Pepper-Spray 9-year-old Girl, USA Today (Jan. 31, 2021, 7:04 PM),

[2] Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Dr. Subini A. Annamma, & Vilissa Thompson, Black Girls With Disabilities Are Disproportionately Criminalized, Teen Vogue (Sept. 17, 2020),

[3] Nicky Zizaza, ‘A Literal Mug Shot of a 6-year-old Girl:’ Grandmother Outraged over Child’s Arrest, (Sept. 23, 2019),

[4] Dorothy E. Hines, Robb King Jr., & Donna Ford, Black Students in Handcuffs: Addressing Racial Disproportionality in School Discipline for Students with Dis/abilities, 120 Teachers College Record -, 2 (2018),

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Rachelle Hampton, A New Report Shows School Discipline Is Meted Out Unequally According to Race, Gender, and Ability, Slate (Apr. 6, 2018),,to%20Race%2C%20Gender%2C%20and%20Ability&text=The%20researchers%20found%20that%20regardless,patterns%20of%20disproportionate%20discipline%20persisted.

[9] Monique W. Morris, African American Pol’y F., Race, Gender and The School-To-Prison Pipeline: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls 3 (2012).

[10] Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, Priscilla Ocen, & Jyoti Nanda, African American Pol’y F. & Ctr. For Intersectionality & Soc. Pol’y Stud., Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced And Underprotected 23 (2015).

[11] Id. at 22.

[12] Subini A. Annamma, Yolanda Anyon, Nicole M. Joseph, Jordan Farrar, Eldridge Greer, Barbara Downing, & John Simmons, Black Girls and School Discipline: The Complexities of Being Overrepresented and Understudied, 54(2) Urban Education 211, 214 (2019).

[13] Id.

[14] Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake, & Thalia González, Geo. L. Ctr. on Poverty & Ineq., Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood 4 (2017).

[15] Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake, & Thalia González, Geo. L. Ctr. on Poverty & Ineq., Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood 4 (2017).

[16] Id.

[17] Valeria M. Pelet del Toro, Let Black Girls Learn: Perceptions of Black Femininity And Zero-Tolerance Policies In Schools, 87 Rev. Jur. U.P.R. 55, 63.

[18] Epstein, Blake, & González, supra note xiv, at 5.

[19] Amanda L. Sullivan, PhD, Ethan R. Van Norman, MA, & David A. Klingbell, PhD, Exclusionary Discipline of Students With Disabilities: Student and School Characteristics Predicting Suspension, 35 Remedial and Special Education 199, 199 (2014).

[20] Id. Per my last article, ED is overutilized in identifying Black students for services under IDEA: Liza Davis, How the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Fails Minority Students, Mich. J. Race & L.,

[21] Id. at 205.

[22] U.S. Dep’t of Educ. Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline) 2-4 (2014),

[23] Id.

[24] Pressley, Annamma, & Thompson, supra note ii.

[25] IDEA 2004 Close Up: Disciplining Students With Disabilities, GreatSchools.Org (Apr. 5, 2010),

[26] Id.

[27] Pressley, Annamma, & Thompson, supra note ii.