Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley wants to end the school-to-prison pipeline by passing legislation that would establish new federal grants to support schools and states committed to change.  

Schools across the country continue to implement unfair and discriminatory school disciplinary practices, such as suspension and expulsion, that affect Black children as early as preschool at disproportionate rates. These practices also disproportionately affect Indigenous, LGBTQ, and disabled students. 

“This is a national crisis deserving of a federal response — especially within these culture wars and an emboldened white supremacy, where you see our classrooms being weaponized,” Pressley told Capital B during an interview on Monday.

The reintroduction of the Ending PUSHOUT (Punitive, Unfair, School-based Harm That Is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma) Act on Tuesday is part of a wider movement to bring attention to racial disparities in school disciplinary practices.

Pressley initially introduced the bill in 2019, during her first term, and then again in 2021. This time, Pressley gained more support and co-sponsors than before. This includes a co-authored letter with California Rep. Nancy Pelosi to the U.S. Government Accountability Office requesting that the GAO “examine the disparate impact of school disciplinary policies and practices on Black and brown girls in K-12 schools.”  

The congresswoman’s efforts to combat this epidemic go back to when she served on the Boston City Council for eight years. Pressley said that she conducted a paid focus group of 100 Black girl students who shared their expertise and lived experiences of being criminalized for having a disability or “simply for how their hair grew out of their heads.” The study was conducted in partnership with the National Black Women’s Justice Institute.

During the interview with Capital B, Pressley talked about a 16-year-old Black girl who was kicked out of class and suspended for breaking her school’s no-hoodie policy. Really, the girl was insecure about her hair because her family was struggling. She felt unkempt, and embarrassed.

“That’s an example of a lack of cultural humility and competency. If our learning communities are trauma-informed and if you have that cultural humility, the question would not be in the vein of ‘What’s wrong with you?’ It would be, ‘What happened to you?’” Pressley said. 

“When a society disciplines and detains our girls, we really fail to see their humanity. We fail to see their trauma, their disability, their lived experiences, their unmet basic needs, and the abuse so many of them experience,” she added.

Creating policies to help prevent young Black girls from entering the criminal legal system is personal for Pressley. She grew up in a single-parent home. Her father was incarcerated. After experiencing childhood sexual abuse, she shut down, she said.

“This is why it’s important that our schools are trauma-informed spaces,” she stressed. 

Pressley said that passing this bill is “long overdue,” given that more Black girls and women are entering the criminal legal system. 

The Civil Rights Data Collection, a biennial survey the U.S. Department of Education has conducted since 1968, reveals that Black boys face suspension and expulsion at proportions that are some three times their enrollment. Among girls, Black girls are the only group across all races and ethnicities who are disproportionately suspended and expelled, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Office of Civil Rights.

“That discipline is not only wholly inappropriate. It takes these girls out of the classroom, pushing them toward the criminal justice system and diminishing their access to a complete education. This pattern has got to stop,” said New Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, who continues to co-sponsor the bill along with Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. 

Omar said that Black students in her home state and across the country are at risk of suspension and expulsion at astronomical rates, and added, “At one middle school in my district, African American students are 338% more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts. This is a civil rights issue.”

Experts refer to this troubling pattern as the school-to-prison pipeline because it increases the likelihood that Black students — often harshly disciplined even for nonviolent behavior, such as disrupting class or violating a school’s dress code — will have to navigate the criminal legal system.

The issue resurfaced just last year, when an investigation by officials from the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights found that the Victor Valley Union High School District, in southern California’s San Bernardino County, was punishing Black students more severely than white students and thus violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“Our bill would mandate that the DOE collect and publish really comprehensive disaggregated data on this crisis, and then invest $500 million annually to allow us to better understand in real time where these policies are most needed so that we can move accordingly,” Pressley said.

The bill also aims to improve school climate, protect the Civil Rights Data Collection, strengthen the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights, and establish a federal interagency task force to end the school push-out crisis and its impact on girls of color.

Pressley acknowledged that these statistics and findings aren’t groundbreaking — and that’s the problem.

“If you’re serious about this so-called racial reckoning at the height of the most high-profile utilizations of Black folks, this is how we get to a true racial reckoning,” she said.

Christina Carrega is a criminal justice reporter at Capital B. Twitter @ChrisCarrega

Brandon Tensley is Capital B's national politics reporter.