For Black Boys, Tweenhood Coincides With Criminalization

As Black boys grow up they are on the receiving end of pointed discrimination. Creating "brave spaces" for them can help them to advocate for themselves.

Uncertain African American schoolboy frustrated during a class
Photo: Getty Images

Entering tweenhood, that awkward period between the ages of around 9 and 12, marks a significant time for kids going into the next phase of life. This is the time when many children begin to go through events that will shape their lives and personalities, like puberty, peer and social pressure, and mental and behavioral changes. While kids at this age are now able to experience life's joys, like gaining freedom from parents and trying new sports and activities, they are also more likely to begin rebelling against adults and societal "norms."

Tweens face a multitude of personal and societal challenges in an attempt to find themselves while going through considerable bodily and mental transformations. For Black boys, this time comes with a more unique set of oppositions.

Navigating life in a country rife with systemic racism and discrimination based on socioeconomic status creates obstacles that are almost impossible to overcome for Black boys. These issues begin at birth, as Black men generally have a lower life expectancy. Those raised in poverty are also less likely to advance out of low income in their lifetime. And despite Black people making up less than 14% of the population, Black men particularly are disproportionately affected when it comes to arrests and incarceration. This is due, in part, to the school-to-prison pipeline, a system of policies that emphasize harsh disciplinary methods like zero tolerance and an increased presence of school resource officers or law enforcement on school grounds.

"It's so prevalent in the school system, but there are so many pipelines," says Dr. Karla Sapp, a licensed psychotherapist and mental health counselor who focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline and does prisoner reform work within the penal system. "When you look at it from a more contextual piece, what you realize is that some of the factors that feed into it are poverty, the lack of resources in mental health and medical care, and services communitywide that focus on youth development." Components such as these directly contribute to a child's academic performance. Poverty, for example, can display itself in the form of food insecurity, which can cause delays in the development of the body and brain functions.

In the school system, discrimination against Black boys starts relatively early. A study conducted by Yale on implicit biases found that when looking for misbehavior in preschool students, the majority of teachers focused on Black male students. Out of 135 teachers, 42% thought the Black male child required the most attention. This way of thinking stretches through early childhood education and well beyond high school and secondary education.

Trauma from factors within and outside the school system is also detrimentally impactful to Black male students. "A child who is sitting in class who exhibits what most people consider to be ADHD or simply being bad is overlooked as trauma response. So, having this lack of trauma-informed care and interventions in the school setting tends to impact them because they're labeled. Once they're labeled, they find themselves going through the disciplinary process, and that criminalization aspect tends to happen," says Dr. Sapp.

As Black males have the highest risk of exclusionary discipline, too many referrals for minor infractions lead to the student being suspended, expelled, or sent to an alternative school, which brings about more issues. Dr. Sapp explains, "Because it becomes a cycle, they end up finding themselves transitioning out of school or into an alternative school where they learn even more behaviors or end up getting into some type of trouble which then puts them into the juvenile system."

Black male students also face traumatic situations inside school walls. Rayshawn Banks, 11, experienced discrimination by the assistant principal of his school after being falsely accused of harming another student on the bus ride home. "Instantly, Rayshawn just got written up," says his mother, Jazmin Banks. "There was no investigation. There was no talking to me. There was none of that."

In advocating for her child, Jazmin immediately believed her son and visited the school intending to talk to administrators. In finding that her son was suspended from the bus with no investigation, and after discovering that the bus driver who was on the complaint as an eyewitness never gave a statement or saw the incident, Jazmin was clear that she intended to take matters to the county's board of education.

However, the biggest issue was that Rayshawn was questioned by school administrators alone during his lunch period and his mother was never contacted. He was unable to even eat his food. Scared to the point of tears, he felt it was easier to take the blame to avoid more trouble.

Jazmin advised her son, "If you know for a fact that you are not in the wrong, you do not take the blame for anything. If you get called to the office, you have the right to say 'I want to speak with my mother.'" The assistant principal decided to drop the suspension, but the entire situation left both mother and child with negative feelings. Jazmin removed Rayshawn from the bus altogether and drove him to school for the remainder of the year.

Believing Black boys when they confide in us that they feel they're being mistreated or targeted is the first step in serving as advocates for their safety and well-being. Dr. Sapp believes in the idea of brave spaces instead of safe spaces. "Having a brave space means that I'm not going to just be safe, but I'm also going to be able to express myself in a way where I'm going to feel heard," she says.

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