Commentary Politics

Herman Cain and School Kids: New Research and New Allegations Show Us that Sexual Harassment Is Still a Problem

Martha Kempner

As the nation tries to decide what to make of allegations of sexual harassment against Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain, a new study was released showing that 48 percent of middle school and high school students experience sexual harassment in school.  Clearly, we still have a long way to go on this issue. 

At five o’clock this evening, Republican Presidential Hopeful Herman Cain held a press conference to directly address the allegations of sexual harassment that have been piling up against him in recent weeks. “I chose to address the accusations directly rather than in a series of continuous statements or spokespeople because that’s the kind of person Herman Cain is,” the candidate said as he began to address the press (frequently in the third person).  Of course, this isn’t the kind of person Herman Cain was two weeks ago when the claims of sexual harassment first surfaced in a story on Politico. 

At the end of October, the website reported that during Cain’s tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association, “at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain.”  The article explained that the complaints had ended with the women receiving monetary settlements and leaving their jobs. According to Politico, in the days leading up to the story, the Cain team: “repeatedly declined to respond directly about whether he ever faced allegations of sexual harassment at the restaurant association.”  

As the weeks went on and the story gained momentum – with a third woman telling the Associated Press that she too had been harassed but had not filed a complaint – the Cain team seemed to settle on a series of talking points: the candidate didn’t have to respond to anonymous allegations; he only vaguely remembered something about the settlements but they had been handled by the association’s lawyers and he didn’t know the details, and the liberal media was clearly behind this story.  

While they stuck close to their talking points, some of the interviews that Cain gave seemed a little confused.  NPR described the candidate as giving “evolving accounts about his knowledge of the complaints and settlements.”  In one interview, he said that he was not aware of a settlement and then clarified, when the host seemed surprised that as the head of the organization he wouldn’t know anything about it, “I was aware of an agreement but not a settlement.” He went on to say that, “if they did settle, I hope it wasn’t for much because I did nothing wrong.”  In other interviews he suggested that the incidents in question (the same ones he couldn’t remember) were benign in nature and “that the women who complained about his behavior didn’t understand his brand of humor.”

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Then on Monday, a fourth woman came forward.  Not only did she have a name and a face, her story was about harassment of a different nature – she alleged that Cain had groped her and suggested she exchange sex for a job. Sharon Bialek, said in a televised press conference that she met with Cain in 1997 to ask for help getting a job.  After dinner and drinks, she claims that Cain “stuck his hand up her skirt and tried to pull her head toward his crotch.” 

“I said, ‘What are you doing?'” alleged Bialek… “You know I have a boyfriend. This isn’t what I came here for.”

According to Bialek, Cain answered, “You want a job, right?”

Many pundits agreed that this could potentially change everything because the woman herself was making the rounds of talk shows (along with her high-profile attorney, Gloria Allred, who seems to represent all women during their 15-minutes of sex-scandal-related fame) and the claims were harder to laugh off as misinterpreted jokes.  So, Cain called his press conference for this evening and went on Jimmy Kimmel Live last night where he promised he never sexually harassed anyone, claimed that there was no truth to Bialek’s story whatsoever, and quipped that he couldn’t imagine what he would have hired her for anyhow. 

As I waited to see if Herman Cain would say anything other than the 2011 version of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” I decided to read a new study out this month on sexual harassment. It focuses not on powerful men behaving badly in the political spotlight but on awkward teenagers doing the same in the cafeteria.

In its new publication, Crossing the Line; Sexual Harassment at School, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) analyzes the results of its survey that found that 48 percent of all 7th through 12th grade students have experienced some form of sexual harassment. 

Sexual Harassment in the Halls
Though the term sexual harassment was originally coined in 1979 to refer to behaviors that occurred in the workplace, it is now understood that this can happen at school as well. “In the school setting,” the report explains, “sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual behavior that interferes with a student’s educational opportunities.”  According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights:

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Thus, sexual harassment prohibited by Title IX can include conduct such as touching of a sexual nature; making sexual comments, jokes, or gestures; writing graffiti or displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings, pictures, or written materials; calling students sexually charged names; spreading sexual rumors; rating students on sexual activity or performance; or circulating, showing, or creating e-mails or Web sites of a sexual nature.

In one interview last week, Mr. Cain suggested that sexual harassment was “in the eye of the person who thinks maybe I crossed a line,” but in truth, today, there are very specific definitions of what constitutes harassment as well as specific protections against it.  When it comes to school, Title IX protects students from two types of sexual harassment. The first is “quid pro quo” which we all know translates into “this for that.”  This is what Bialek is accusing Cain of – in her case sex for a job.  When it happens in school it is usually an administrator or teacher who tries to coerce a student into sexual activity in exchange for a good grade or some other privilege, such as a spot on a team or a role in the school play. The vast majority of school-based harassment, however, falls into a category more similar to what Cain’s first three accusers reported. Called “hostile environment harassment,” it includes unwanted sexual conduct that “is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive” to “limit a student’s participation in an educational program or activity.” 

The survey, based on a nationally representative sample of 1,965 students, asked young people to share their experiences with both kinds of harassment either in person or on the internet. It defined sexual harassment for students as “as unwelcome sexual behavior,” enumerated possible experiences that students may have had, and reminded participants that “if everyone involved likes and agrees to the sexual behavior, it is not sexual harassment.” It found that 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys had experienced sexual harassment during the 2010‒11 school year.

When it comes to in person harassment, the survey found:

  • 33 percent of students had someone make unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about them,
  • 18 percent of students were called gay or lesbian in a negative way,
  • 13 percent of students were shown sexy or sexual pictures that they didn’t want to see,
  • 8 percent of students were touched in an unwelcome sexual way,
  • 6 percent of students were physically intimidated in a sexual way,
  • 7 percent of students had someone flash or expose themselves to them, and
  • 2 percent of students were forced to do something sexual.

As for the internet:

  • 20 percent of students were sent unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or pictures or had someone post such things about or of them,
  • 17 percent of students had someone spread unwelcome sexual rumors about them, and
  • 12 percent of students were called lesbian or gay in a negative way.

Not surprisingly girls were more likely than boys to encounter most forms of sexual harassment.  For example, 46 percent of girls heard unwelcome sexual comments or jokes in person compared to 22 percent of boys, and 16 percent of girls were shown sexual pictures in person that they didn’t want to see compared to just 3 percent of boys.  (Interestingly, in the press conference, Mr. Cain made a point of how it was not always that women were sexually harassed by men, sometimes women sexually harassed men, and when he was an executive he didn’t tolerate that either.) 

The Impact on Students
Herman Cain’s accusers are now part of a national story whether they like it or not.  Woman Number 1 has been identified publicly as Karen Kraushaar, the communications director for the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration. Kraushaar has acknowledged through her lawyer that she did receive a monetary settlement and has said she does not wish to discuss the matter further:  “She and her husband see no value in revisiting this matter now, nor in discussing this matter further, publicly or privately. In fact, it would be extremely painful to do so.”  Of course, now that her name has been released, numerous articles have been written about her and we know, among other irrelevant things, that she’s an accomplished equestrian and that she has scoliosis (a curvature of the spine). 

Bialek, who chose to come forward to “force” the presidential contender to tell the truth, is faring poorly in the press. She’s been described as a “blonde bombshell” who has a history of bankruptcy and was once sued over an issue involving paternity issue.  (A combination of phrases which I can’t help but interpret as meaning “don’t believe her, she’s an irresponsible slut.”)  Rush Limbaugh, once again displaying his polish and tact, pointed out that her last named sounded a little like “Buy-a-Lick.” And in his press conference this evening Cain himself (who swears he has no recollection of her) referred to her as a “troubled woman” and insinuated that she was being used by his opponents. Whatever the end result of stepping forward is, this media circus is clearly going to be a life-changing event for her. 

While high school victims of harassment will likely not make the cover of People Magazine or earn nicknames from conservative talk show hosts, they too suffer negative consequences.  The survey found that:

  • 32 percent of students who indicated they had been harassed did not want to go to school,
  • 31 percent felt sick to their stomachs,
  • 30 percent found it hard to study,
  • 19 percent had trouble sleeping,
  • 12 percent stayed home from school,
  • 10 percent got into trouble at school,
  • 9 percent changed how they went to or from school,
  • 8 percent stopped doing a school activity or sport, and
  • 4 percent switched schools.

While students experienced many of these reactions only for a short time, some described their reaction as going on “for quite a while.”  

Coming Forward
Bialek’s decision not to say anything until now (she says she was embarrassed by the events that transpired) has many people doubting her story and questioning her motives.  While it remains possible that she is after money or fame, she is not alone in keeping incidents of sexual harassment to herself.  Almost half of all students who experienced sexual harassment (49 percent) ignored it even while it was happening, 24 percent told the person to stop, 24 percent tried to defend themselves, 15 percent tried to turn it into a joke, and 7 percent said they did nothing because they didn’t know what to do.  After the fact, only 9 percent of the high school students who were sexually harassed reported the incident to a teacher, guidance counselor, or other adult at school, while 27 percent mentioned it to their parents or family (including siblings), 23 percent talked to friends about it, and just 1 percent went to the police.  A full 50 percent did nothing.   

Interestingly, students were more likely to take action if they saw sexual harassment happening to someone else with 24 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys who witnessed harassment saying they tried to help.  Of these students, 60 percent told the harasser to stop, 54 percent asked the person being harassed if he/she was okay, 24 percent reported the incident to a teacher, administrator, or school employee, and 22 percent reported the incident to their family. 

Given the likelihood that incidents go unreported, one has to wonder whether more women are going to start to come forward to discuss Herman Cain’s behavior. We have two women who took the matter to their supervisors at the National Restaurant Association, a third who said she experienced unwanted sexual advances but didn’t file a claim, a fourth who is telling her story to the world through the talk show circuit, and a new allegation that surfaced just this evening. So, are there five more or fifty-five who have said nothing… yet?

Why Harassers Do It
Herman Cain has not only denied the specific allegations leveled against him, he said unequivocally that he “has never acted inappropriately with anyone period.” (A line he repeated more than once in his press conference by the way.)  It turns out most high school students believe the same thing about themselves.  You see, while 48 percent of students experienced harassment, only 16 percent admitted to doing the harassing.

When asked why they did, admitted harassers had this to say:

  • 40 percent said “it’s just part of school life/it’s no big deal,”
  • 39 percent thought it was funny,
  • 34 percent said they were being stupid,
  • 23 percent said they were getting back at the person for something done to them,
  • 7 percent said they were angry about something else in their life,
  • 6 percent said they thought the person liked it,
  • 4 percent said their friends pushed them into doing it, and
  • 3 percent said they wanted a date with the person.

Cain’s press conference did not contain any of these excuses/explanations.  In fact, he acknowledged many times that sexual harassment is very serious, he just refused to acknowledge that he had ever participated in any. 

A New Set of Talking Points
After an introduction by his lawyer who reminded us that sexual harassment is very serious, so serious in fact that it would never be settled with a financial payout of just tens of thousands of dollars, Cain himself took the stage with notes so he didn’t miss any points.  The points he made, he made repeatedly, and they didn’t seem all that different to what he’d said earlier. 

He categorically denied Bialek’s story saying that despite trying to, he did not remember either her name or her face; he continued to remind viewers that the other accusations were anonymous; he called the original allegations false and baseless and argued that the reported settlements were merely agreements about “personnel matters,” he blamed the liberal media (who is now stalking his family) and the Democrat machine; and he hinted that this was a conspiracy brought about to keep a business man out of the White House.   

Cain acknowledged that there will likely be other allegations of sexual harassment against him:  “not because I am aware of any but because the machine to keep a business man out of the white house is going to be relentless.”  He was, of course, right as new allegations have surfaced this evening.  Donna Donella reported that she hired  Cain to give a speech in 2002 when she was working for the United States Agency for International Development.  After the speech, Cain approached Donella and a colleague, asking: “Could you put me in touch with that lovely young lady who asked the question, so I can give her a more thorough answer over dinner?” Donella and her colleague were uncomfortable with the nature of his request:  “I couldn’t swear that he had some untoward intentions, but we all thought his tone was suspect and we didn’t feel comfortable putting him in touch with that woman.”   

Throughout the press conference, Cain referred to himself as “Herman Cain” and his accusers as “the lady.” Cain used his wife’s reaction to Bialek’s allegations (she apparently said “that doesn’t even sound like something you’d do”) as proof that he was the victim here.  I believe that putting his hand up another woman’s skirt and demanding sex for a job is not something his wife is accustomed to seeing him do but I have to say that this doesn’t do much in terms of convincing me that the allegations are false.  Plenty of wives don’t know how their husbands act when they’re not together.

My favorite part of the press conference, however, was when Cain answered a question from Fox news about whether he felt these allegations were part of a conspiracy.  The man who had spent the first half an hour of the press conference repeatedly reminding us that we had to look only at the facts and that there were no facts to show he had ever done anything wrong, had this to say:  “I cannot say that it is a conspiracy –we do not have definitive factual proof.  We can only look at some coincidences to suggest it that maybe someone is deliberately behind it.  So we have not been able to make any determination to point any fingers to place any blame on anybody at this point.  When we step back and look at the fact that there’s not factual evidence to back this up we can only infer that someone is trying to wreck my character.”

We Are Talking About Sexual Harassment Again

If the press conference was designed to put an end to the media’s fascination with this story, it didn’t.  And given the new allegations that have been added to the discussion this evening, the story is likely going to be in the news for quite a while as Herman Cain tries to hang on to his tenuous place as a front-runner for the nomination. 

The only good news I can see in all of this is that our country is once again talking about the uncomfortable topic of sexual harassment. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Mad Men knows that once upon a time in this country what we now see as inappropriate sexual remarks and even advances were tolerated if not celebrated in the workplace. Advocates worked tirelessly to get this issue taken seriously but since the spotlight of Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas faded, we have not talked a lot about it.  Some suggested that Herman Cain’s poll numbers did not suffer, at least initially, because we are all too jaded: “Twenty years after Anita Hill accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment at his confirmation hearings, searing the issue into the national consciousness and spawning an untold number of workplace seminars, the issue generates little shock value.”

In the age of Anthony Weiner texting pictures of his genitals, Elliot Spitzer sleeping with prostitutes, and Senator Larry Craig allegedly soliciting sex  in an airport men’s room, it’s understandable that it is hard to get worked up over a few inappropriate remarks spoken over a decade ago.

But the UUAW’s report tells us that we can’t be complacent because while we may be bored with talking about the topic, we certainly haven’t solved the problem of sexual harassment, and our kids are suffering for it.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

‘I’m Not Slow’: Black Girls Tell Their Experiences of School ‘Pushout’ in New Book

Cynthia Greenlee

If Dr. Monique W. Morris makes anything plain in this book, it's this: Black girls shouldn’t have to rely on their own resilience to stay in school.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

For Black girls, the very schools charged with educating them reinforce and reproduce a dangerous, though often invisible, form of racial and gendered inequality, explains Dr. Monique W. Morris in her new book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.

Among the young girls the reader meets in Pushout, there’s “Mia” (not her real name, as Morris used pseudonyms for all girls interviewed). Mia talked about how a “juvie” teacher assumed that when she asked for other tasks in class, that the girl didn’t complete her work. But Mia told Morris that she had raced through the assignment. Said Mia: “Then I’m like, ‘Can I write or draw?’ Something? I mean, it’s a whole hour to go.’ She was like, ‘No, you can’t do anything. You’re always getting done before the whole class. You know what, get out.’ …. I’m like, ‘Because I do my work, I’m actually trying to do my work now, and now you want me to get out? Hella shit.’”

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What Mia wanted was positive recognition. Instead, she got written up.

Though Morris did not coin the term, the word “pushout” is an intentional reframing of the word “dropout.” It acknowledges that young people leaving school do so for a variety of reasons, many not of their own making. Poverty demands they work. Predatory “boyfriends” induct underage girls into selling sex with promises of love, clothes, and cash. Chaotic schools can make a motivated student dread going to class. LGBTQ teens who don’t conform to gender norms get bullied by peers and labeled “distracting” by adults.

The reasons abound, but each year, millions of U.S. students face expulsion or suspension. According to research from the Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, seven million of the almost 50 million U.S. students faced in-school or out-of-school suspension in 2011-2012, the most recent year for which data is available. About 130,000 were expelled.

An education scholar and co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, Morris focuses on implicit bias—a term from experimental psychology for the unconscious ideas that influence how we think and interact. Implicit bias can affect when police officers shoot, how managers making hiring decisions, and as Morris demonstrates with devastating clarity, when educators suspend students.

Teachers and administrators often bring racialized and gendered assumptions about what it means to be a “good” girl to the classroom, Morris explains in her book. Notions of appropriate girlhood—nonsexualized though heterosexual, compliant, and quiet—are often the opposite of historical stereotypes that have cast Black girls as sexually precocious, uncooperative, and disrespectful. If a person believes the idea that every Black girl is a Jezebel-in-training or hates school, it’s hard for them to see beyond that.

And, in many cases, affected girls understand this.

Largely absent throughout much of Pushout are Black girls’ parents or guardians. Morris departs from the long tradition of punditry and social science that churns out study after study about what’s “wrong” with this mythical, monolithic, and immutable Black family. It’s a refreshing absence that will make some readers ask about parental involvement. That’s a fair question—but an easy and familiar default that inevitably veers into talk about personal responsibility without taking structural inequality into account.

Interviewing almost 40 pushed-out girls in urban areas, including Mia, Morris uses their own words to assert that Black girls are worth study, attention, and equity in education.

“Shai” from Chicago noted different responses to her and white peers that she calls “little Suzie”: “When little Suzie gets the question wrong, it’s like, ‘Aww, you got the question wrong.’ It’s funny.” In contrast, when Shai made an error, “it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s slow.’ … I get so angry, number one, because I already told them I’m bad at math. Number two, because I’m not slow.”

Girls can be tossed from schools for fighting or so-called “status offenses”—actions such as skipping school that are punishable only for a certain class (in this case, minors).

But pushout occurs all too often when Black girls are labeled unruly. They talk too loud and too often, according to a teacher. Maybe a girl is wearing the “wrong” clothes to school (which might have to do as much with fashion, size, gender identity, or access to the right clothes as a desire to thumb a nose at authority). An authority figure says they have an “attitude.”

On any given day, girls of all races push boundaries on their way to adulthood. But white girls’ behaviors, interviewees said, are seen as temporary actions, not inevitable or part of their identities.

In high school, I too was guilty of these bogus offenses: cursing, wearing my older sisters’ too-grown-for-me clothes, occasionally sassing teachers. On the first day of my senior year of high school, my history teacher stopped me at the door and said, “I know you’re used to getting A’s. But that won’t happen in my class.” In the subsequent yearlong tug of war, I blatantly ignored his lectures—uninspired regurgitations of the textbook—by reading dusty classroom encyclopedias. He’d ask, “Why don’t you listen?” My response: “Why don’t you make it interesting?”

I was a “good kid”: straight A’s and well-rounded, with professional parents and from a neighborhood where more kids were college-bound than not. If I failed, my parents and other teachers at my 99 percent Black high school would cry foul. They expected me to succeed, just as my teacher—who sometimes mused aloud about his dreams to work at a high-performing school—expected me to struggle under his sad, uncreative teaching.

As Morris points out through this book, talking back, simply asking genuine questions, or expecting a teacher to teach can set a girl on a short path to school separation. She could face suspension, expulsion, being moved to an alternative school for troubled youth, house arrest, and even detention or incarceration in juvenile hall (and sometimes adult corrections facilities).

Department of Education statistics from 2011 show that Black girls are six times more likely than white girls to be suspended, even higher than the disparity between Black boys and their white counterparts.

Pushout can have long-term consequences. As Morris points out, many girls struggle to return to school, and others land in the juvenile justice system due to an incident that began in a place of learning. Today, Black girls make up the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system.

Concerns about Black girls and school discipline have not risen as quickly as the statistics, though groups such as the African American Policy Forum and many Black women scholar-activists are persistently sounding the alarm. Otherwise, it’s a quiet crisis silenced by Akeelah and the Bee logic that Black families don’t value education and are continually falling down on their most important job: raising well-adjusted, healthy children. Or it’s muffled by a comfortable patriarchy that, whenever attention focuses on Black children in education, centers on Black boys like the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

While Morris sounds the alarm that Black girls experience different racial and gender biases, she writes compellingly about the persistence of segregation after legal segregation supposedly ended. There are many segregations described in Pushout: the segregation of higher-performing students from those considered at risk in almost every school in the nation; the separation of “troubled” girls in juvenile facilities; and the concentration of Black and brown children in schools with few whites and few resources. Morris’ account raises the question of whether school demographics make a difference in this era of school resegregation. If teachers, administrators, and the broader society is disinterested in schools where students of color predominate, the picture doesn’t look much better for Black girls in majority-white schools.

I should note that Pushout largely focuses on urban girls in cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and San Francisco. What happens to girls in the rural South? Where there may be one high school in a county, alternative schools are rarely an option; if they are options, they may be in an adjacent county or farther, separating detained youth from their family and support network.

Despite this omission, Pushout pushes us to think about different kinds of personal, professional, and social responsibility. “Implicit bias” may sound like a more benign cousin to racism or “racism light” (and to be clear, implicit bias is not merely about race or gender, and it’s not confined to any one race or ethnicity).

If we accept that implicit bias lies at the root of pushout, how do we root out the bias at the levels of the self, the individual teacher, the school, and the educational and criminal justice systems? In a final addendum to the book, Morris points to two models: positive behavioral intervention systems (an approach that many educational institutions use to modify behavior and increase positive feedback) and restorative justice, which stresses communication and healing between the person who committed an offense and those affected. In the right circumstances, each approach can lead to change.

If Morris makes anything plain, it’s this: Black girls shouldn’t have to rely on their own resilience to stay in school. We need a sophisticated toolbox with multiple programs that doesn’t blame low-performing schools for their problems, that invests in Black girls specifically, and that takes aim at implicit bias.

But that’s easier said than done. We can spot the people wearing Klan hoods at Trump rallies, but implicit bias is a sneakier opponent that looks like and dresses like us.


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