To be a child without the protections of innocence: the repercussions of the adultification of black youth by school teachers in the United States education system
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Black children in America’s schools are the main targets of harsh disciplinary policies and actions that directly push students outside of the classroom and in contact with the criminal justice system. According to a study conducted at Yale University, beginning from pre- kindergarten, black children in state funded schools are twice as likely than white and Latino children to be expelled, and are over five times as likely than Asian-American students to be expelled.1 This trend begins in the earliest stages of a black child’s educational experience, and extends to the end, high school graduation, for those who make it to that milestone. This research examines how black school-aged children are disproportionately susceptible to the discrimination and exclusion of zero tolerance policies because they are revoked of the protections of innocence that accompany childhood. This work researches the extent to which teachers contribute to adultification. Using Boston area schools as a case study, I test the hypotheses that (1) teachers view black students as older and less innocent than their white peers (2) when teachers encounter black children, in terms of disciplinary action, they treat them differently than white children (3) teachers’ attitudes about race correlate with their attitudes about zero tolerance policies and (4) the gender of the child as well as their race has significant effects on the above analyses. Building on previous literature that details the racial disparities in school suspension and expulsion rates, and studies that reveal that black children are seen as older, my research goes further and expects that within the school environment, teachers contribute to the adultification of black children. Hence when teachers encounter black children, they treat them more like adults, and this in turn feeds into their support and/or adoption of zero tolerance policies being used on black children as opposed to their white peers. Through this study I find evidence that black boys were viewed by most teachers as 4 years older than their black girl and white counterparts. Also significant to the study is the finding that teachers express an overall incompetent understanding of zero tolerance school discipline policies; nonetheless their attitudes on race do correlate with their views about zero tolerance policies. Lastly, when teachers encounter students of different races they perceive the children differently, although this does not necessarily lead to significant differences in their perceived support for teacher’s enacting harsh punishment, it does influence assumptions of innocence or accountability for the student and hence alter the ways in which they perceive, interpret, and explain identical behaviors enacted by both black and white school children.