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High school students share their challenges as young black girls in the classroom.


Four teenage girls sit side-by-side at a conference table facing rows of chairs. As audience members trickle in and find their seats, the young ladies chatter quietly while fidgeting with water bottles, straightening their matching T-shirts and reviewing notes.

It's a weekday evening at a downtown women's co-working space, the Broad, and these high school students are there to share their experiences as black girls in the public school system.

Moderator Azaria Lewis asks each panelist to introduce herself and then for the next hour, the girls candidly answer questions about dress codes, suspension rates, teacher-student relationships and personal run-ins with racism.

Holding the panel was their idea, the culmination of a months-long discussion about challenges they face in public schools. They're members of Girls for a Change, a Chesterfield County-based nonprofit with the goal of "preparing black girls for the world and preparing the world for black girls." It's a multifaceted organization with before-school, after-school and summer programs for girls of color, and activities include coding classes, a work-ready ambassador program, a leadership academy and Girl Action Teams.

Under the guidance of two female coaches, each Girl Action Team includes girls from schools all over the Richmond area. Their task is to identify a challenge in their community and collaborate to come up with creative solutions.

Each year the group holds a black girl showcase, where the teams present their discussions, research and ideas with anyone willing to listen. Following this year's showcase, these four girls felt compelled to share their stories and findings with a larger audience. When they approached the group's founder and chief executive, Angela Patton, about playing host to a panel discussion, she didn't think twice.  

"That doesn't necessarily mean they come up with the solutions that day or that it's solved, but they come up with the idea," Patton says. "Then they're asking for you to support them, give them resources. They're tapping into stakeholders to make positive change in the community."

Patton was born on the South Side of Richmond and her family moved to Chesterfield when she was in third grade. Never one to shy away from expressing her opinion, Patton was one of a handful of black girls in her class and she says she often got in trouble for being "aggressive" or "inappropriate." She felt silenced at school, and she says her peers and teachers called her bossy, loud and disrespectful.

"No one was able to teach me how to cultivate my leadership, so the way that I expressed it was not appropriate," she says. "And not many 15, 16-year-olds know how to do it appropriately, so the best thing to do is silence that voice."

Without effective mentors or an outlet for all that energy she was left to her own devices. And years later, that's where Girls for a Change comes in. She says hearing the girls talk about injustices at school brings back painful memories, but that makes her work all the more important. Here are their stories.

  • Scott Elmquist

Danielle Freeman Jefferson  
Henrico High School
Age: 18

Danielle Freeman Jefferson had her share of uncomfortable encounters at school, like when a teacher accused her of being aggressive, perpetuating what she says is a long-standing, unfair narrative of the "angry black woman." Or when classmates comment on or touch her hair without permission.

But the one that stands out the most was last year in driving school, when she started arguing with the only adult in the car, who expressed his opinion that white privilege doesn't exist. Freeman Jefferson says she doesn't have a temper — "I don't have the energy." But the whole interaction was deeply frustrating. Neither of the other two students in the car came to her defense, she says, and the power dynamic between her and the instructor left her feeling vulnerable and angry.  

"At the time I responded really immaturely, and I went on a whole rant about it," she says. "But now I respond with the facts. White privilege isn't just an idea, it's an actual thing. White privilege is not being considered ugly on dating sites, it's being considered for a job before anyone else, it's being allowed in certain places without a second thought, it's not being followed around a store, it's things like that."

Her mother wanted her to go to an Ivy League school. But when the time came to decide on colleges, the Henrico High School graduate settled on North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black school in Greensboro.

"I'm excited for the family part of it, I'm excited to be a part of a really tight-knit community," Freeman Jefferson says, adding that she's looking forward to taking classes on African-American history and other subjects that are close to home. "There's a lot of stuff that goes on there that's relevant to black society in today's world."

Despite growing up with parents who encouraged her to ask tough questions and discuss race head-on, she feels like she's missed out on a black community.

Henrico High School's student body was nearly two-thirds black in 2015, but she spent all four years in the international baccalaureate, known as the IB, program — composed almost entirely of white and Asian students, she says. She explains that the school is divided into three "factions": IB, Center for the Arts and the "zone kids," who attend Henrico because it's their neighborhood school. Being in IB was isolating, and when it occurred to her that she knew next to nothing about her black teammates at cross country practice, she began making a conscious effort to interact outside of the program.

Her mom is nervous about her only child's decision to attend a historically black college. She worries it will be too sheltered and not an accurate representation of the real world. But Freeman Jefferson yearns for the community she saw when she visited campus.

"I want to be surrounded by black excellence and black professionals," she says.

  • Scott Elmquist

Joi Coleman  
Maggie L. Walker Governor's School
Age: 16

When Joi Coleman was in kindergarten, she told her mom she wanted to do something that will change the world. The precocious Maggie L. Walker Governor's School junior has since cycled through a number of career aspirations — president, traveling photographer — recently landing on marine mammalogist.

Coleman could talk about dolphins for hours — did you know they have the highest brain-to-body ratio of all cetaceans? — as she fact-checks herself on her phone and pushes a pair of blue glasses back up her nose with one finger.

Coleman took honors classes and when it was time to choose a high school, she opted out of attending Hermitage High School and instead went to Maggie Walker. Leaving friends to start over wasn't an easy decision, and even two years in she still has her rough days. But she's confident that attending a specialty school was the right decision.

"I was the gifted child in my family, I was always expected to do something more, and Maggie Walker was the way to a better life," Coleman says. "It's always about my future and not really the experience."

During the panel at the Broad, she notes that her experience as a black girl at school is, in a lot of ways, different from the others. Attitudes about things like the dress code are different at her school, she says, and students are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt. In 2015, black students made up 6.2 percent of the enrollment of 745 children at Maggie Walker, and out-of-school suspensions that year reached six, a third of whom were black students. The only recent suspension Coleman could recall was when a girl slammed a boastful supporter of President Donald Trump into a locker the morning after the 2016 election.

Having attended Longdale Elementary and Brookland Middle schools, she says the luxuries and opportunities afforded at Maggie Walker are striking compared to what she experienced in Henrico.

"Kids got into so many fights, so many teachers didn't seem to care about the kids, they were constantly underpaid, you had to bring your own paper and scissors to class," she says, rattling off memories from middle school. "And terrible, terrible food. I always packed my lunch but I tasted the fries and it was just, like, nothing but gross. If you tasted sadness, that's what the fries tasted like, they tasted sad."

Coleman says she's heard "horror stories" about Hermitage, and she's proud and grateful that she is able to attend a specialty school. Having opportunities that her friends and neighbors don't, however, doesn't sit well.

"Things are different at Maggie Walker. It's like state of the art, we've got 3-D printers, the food is actually really good," she says. "They're very different experiences, but they shouldn't be. Education shouldn't be so different based on the amount of money that goes into it or the certain ethnic group that makes up the school that determines how much people care about what happens to the school or the children."  

Henrico County School spokesman Andy Jenks commends the girls for speaking their minds.

"When students grow and make thoughtful observations about the world around them, we see that as evidence of wanting to make the world a better place," he says by email.

  • Scott Elmquist

Azaria Lewis  
Meadowbrook High School
Age: 16

When Angela Patton visited her alma mater, Meadowbrook High School, to share information about Girls for a Change with teachers and students, Azaria Lewis was intrigued.

A rising junior in the digital entrepreneurship academy at the predominantly black and Hispanic Chesterfield high school, Lewis was struck by this confident businesswoman who looked like her. While the activities and camaraderie of the group appealed to her, she was particularly drawn to Patton's candid nature when discussing race issues. "It was probably the first time that a grown black woman was open to starting the conversation about it," Lewis says. "Because a lot of times there aren't really opportunities to talk about it."  

Like Patton, she didn't always have a positive outlet. She admits that she can have a temper, and channeling her frustrations in a constructive way has been a learning process. "I had to develop those skills. I was just real reactive before," she says.

She's cultivated a reputation as someone who speaks up for herself and others, and there are times she wishes she had more support, either from classmates or adults on campus. She and a small circle of like-minded friends have had productive discussions with administrators about issues like the dress code, but the apathy among many of her peers can be disheartening. "There have been so many times when I've been like, 'What is this?' Y'all should be mad," Lewis says.

When it comes to addressing students' concerns, she would love access to more adults on campus. The U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection reveals that in 2015, Meadowbrook had six counselors for a student body of 1,627. Lewis says the counselors at her school are "so overworked" that students have a hard time accessing the mental health, mediation and other support they need — which is why she and her pal Solange Oliver have talked about taking it into their own hands.

"We want to start student-led counseling, so that a student has the option to go to another student for counseling," she says. "Mediating, channeling energy, you know, all those good things that you can't do with the counselors because they have very little time on their hands."  

When Lewis isn't studying, practicing the saxophone or watching documentaries on Netflix, she's usually hanging out with Oliver. The two met in middle school and when asked if they bonded over a penchant for social justice, she laughs.

"It wasn't like, 'Oh, she cares about the same things that I do,' it was just like, 'Oh, she's weird too,'" Lewis says fondly.  

  • Scott Elmquist

Solange Oliver  
Meadowbrook High School
Age: 15

Student Solange Oliver founded a club at Meadowbrook called Girls Code, which encourages her female classmates to learn about their cultures and advocate for themselves, especially when it comes to the dress code. Chesterfield's regulations state that "head coverings, unless required for religious or medical purposes" are prohibited. For Solange, that means fewer options for doing her hair.

"I like the way a turban looks on my head and some days I don't have my hair figured out and I just want to throw on a turban," Oliver says. "All hairstyles are not accessible to me, so I do what I can."  With permission from administrators, the club held a spirit week during Black History Month, which included a turban day.  

"We're taught from a Eurocentric perspective so when they have rules and guidelines they don't have to integrate you embracing your culture," she explains. "I motivate girls to wear headscarves when they can if they want to. You'll get stopped and sent to [in-school detention], but I motivate more students to advocate for themselves because it's just ridiculous."  

The rising junior describes herself as stubborn, dramatic, talkative and loud. When a white boy at school called her a "typical black girl" after she expressed an opinion in class, she says the teacher separated them but didn't address the comment.

At the same time, Oliver's peers and extended family members have told her she "talks like a white girl," often viewed as a form of elitism, she says. So she's too black for some people but not enough for others. Like many girls of color, Oliver has spent much of her adolescence straddling that line, searching for an identity in a society — and at a school — where getting people to take her seriously is a never-ending battle.

"We always hear that we've got to work 10 times harder than the next person," she says.  

Oliver has had run-ins with conflict and discipline at school, but she's never been suspended. Plenty of her classmates have, though, and she worries about the suspension rate among her black peers. According to data compiled by the Virginia Department of Education, black children made up 55.2 percent of the Meadowbrook student body in 2014-2015. During that school year, 219 out-of-school suspensions took place, and 72.1 percent of those suspended students were black. Those numbers reflect a larger trend.

Disparities on race and student disabilities exist statewide, says Rachael C. Deane, legal director for the JustChildren program at Legal Aid Justice Center, which has been working for years to limit suspensions in schools.

"I think it has to do with implicit bias, very subjective student codes of conduct and selective enforcement," Deane tells Style, arguments that were made in a complaint filed two years ago against the city of Richmond. "Many if not most of suspensions are issued for purely behavioral things, defiance, disrespect, disruption or nonviolent offenses. That type of violation can be very subjectively interpreted bias creeps in."

Legal Aid is not saying that anyone is explicitly discriminating against children, she says. "But it's important to note that we also see big disparities with children with disabilities," she adds. "Unaddressed behavioral needs that haven't been recognized."

"If you get suspended from school you're not allowed to advocate for yourself," Oliver says, adding that the more kids get suspended, the further they fall behind. "It's just you did this, and this is why you're getting suspended. I think human advocacy is not really in the public school system."

In response to an inquiry about suspension rates by race, Chesterfield County School spokesman Shawn Smith says that administrators collect, analyze and interpret discipline data from schools on a monthly, quarterly and yearly basis.

That data is then "disaggregated and serves to identify schools with elevated risk both within and across subgroup populations." He adds that "specific interventions also include training and support in social emotional learning, trauma-informed care and restorative practices."

Since the May panel, the girls have continued brainstorming solutions for the challenges they face. They're working on a multipart report about the importance of trauma-informed care in schools and community centers.

They intend to share their findings with the state secretary of Education. S

Virginia's Suspension Crisis

The Legal Aid Justice Center released a report in October that analyzed 2015-16 data and found more than 131,000 out-of-school suspensions issued to students statewide.

The rise of exclusionary discipline started roughly 30 to 40 years ago and a zero-tolerance policy took over during the '90s as a response to school shootings and the war on drugs, according to Rachael C. Deane, legal director for the JustChildren program at the center.

"Brain research and behavioral research also developed over the last 20 years, and the science is telling us that youth brains aren't fully developed until they're 25," says Deane, which means the processes of associated consequences with behaviors aren't in place. "Excluding the child from school severs their education process and relationships with teachers, mentors, peers. It's this out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality that really harms students."

For years, her group has pushed for state laws that restrict local school systems' ability to suspend or expel students. Recent legislative successes include two laws that went into effect July 1, the first of which limits suspension of children kindergarten through third grade to three days, with exceptions for aggravating circumstances. The second law changes long-term suspension lengths from 365 days to 45 school days.

She explains that what her group is really fighting for are alternative disciplinary measures that use nonpunitive approaches that teach, repair the harm done and change the underlying behavior.

School funding is a concern but she doesn't think it's a direct cause of the suspension crisis. The state has capped funding for this kind of support — for example: counselors and psychologists — for about a decade since the recession and that has not been lifted.

It doesn't surprise Deane that students have to form their own support groups.

"I think we're asking educators to do so much and we have not resourced them to the level they need for decades now," she says. "Some of these alternative strategies we're proposing are actually more cost-effective. There's a big-time burden to process a suspension."

Currently her group is focused on a select committee on school safety that the House of Delegates formed after the Parkland shooting (see news and features).

"A lot of safety issues are related to having the right support staff in schools, counselors, mental health services that address student needs before behavior reaches the point of violence," she says.

She says JustChildren is pleased the committee has opened up discussions about student support, and she'll be eagerly watching for its recommendation before the next General Assembly. Her group is also taking a hard look at school funding.

"We all know about RPS and crumbling schools, but it's really a statewide crisis," she says. "The buck falls at the state level and the state really needs to increase its investment to take that burden off localities."