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Animating Discipline Disparities Through Debilitating Practices: Girls of Color and Inequitable Classroom Interactions

by Subini Annamma, Tamara Handy, Amanda L. Miller & Elizabeth Jackson - 2020

Context: Girls of Color are overrepresented in school disciplinary actions based on subjectively judged, minor infractions. Studies have consistently shown that this exclusionary discipline has long-lasting impact on Girls of Color and their educational outcomes, including increased risk for pushout and involvement in the criminal legal system.

Focus of Study: We sought to uncover the processes that animate the statistics of overrepresentation of Girls of Color in disciplinary actions. Said differently, we sought to understand where, how, and why Girls of Color were being disciplined in schools. Using a Disability Critical Race Theory (DisCrit) lens and centering the voices of Girls’ of Color, this empirical study was guided by the question, What mechanisms propel and dispel disciplinary inequities for Girls of Color?

Research Design: The qualitative research took place in a suburban school district in the Midwestern United States marked by increasing racial, cultural, and linguistic diversity. This was part of a larger two-year study that centered the voices of more than 50 Girls of Color, their families (11), and their teachers (11), exploring understandings of and experiences with school discipline disparities for Girls of Color. Data sources for the full project included interviews with Girls of Color (32), families (10), and teachers (8); focus groups (Girls of Color = 17; families = 3; teachers = 3); classroom and district event observations, Education Journey Mapping (21); and a Cartographer’s Clinic. Data for this study focus on the interviews and focus groups with Girls of Color, working to center them as knowledge generators.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Our analysis revealed the ways in which discipline disparities were animated by inequitable academic and behavioral responses of teachers to classroom interactions, which we name debilitating practices. Further, Girls of Color embodied repositioning as ways of maintaining their integrity and individuality when experiencing academic and behavioral injustices. We conclude with major implications for school personnel: (a) academically, educators must reflect on how ability is distributed and withheld in the classroom along racialized and gendered lines, and (b) behaviorally, positive behavior supports should be imagined and implemented through a race and gender conscious lens. Though we focus on classroom interactions, we also understand that public schools, schools of education, and society all have a role to play in dismantling the school–prison nexus. However, classroom interactions continue to be identified as the source of disciplinary disparities in both quantitative and qualitative studies. Consequently, teachers have an opportunity to change their classroom practices to academically and behaviorally support Girls of Color.  

Despite minimal evidence of higher rates of misbehavior for Students of Color,1 racial disproportionality in discipline has plagued schools in the United States for years (Hannon et al., 2013; Gregory et al., 2017; Payne & Welch, 2010). Students of Color are less likely to have access to support services; concurrently, racial disparities in school disciplinary outcomes appear to be driven by minor, subjectively judged infractions (defiance) rather than more objective and serious behaviors (possessing a weapon; Skiba et al., 2002; Vavrus & Cole, 2002; Wallace et al., 2008). Exclusionary discipline that Students of Color are disproportionately subjected to has long-lasting negative impacts on education trajectories, including, but not limited to, increased likelihood of grade repetition, pushout, and interaction with the criminal legal system (Fabelo et al., 2011; M. W. Morris, 2016; Rausch et al., 2005; Reyes et al., 2013). The schoolprison nexusthis collection of interwoven conditions, policies, and practicespushes Students of Color out of school and into incarceration (Meiners, 2007).

Much of the discipline literature focuses on boys because they are overrepresented compared with girls overall (Harper, 2015). Though this focus on Boys of Color is important, Girls of Color in public schools experience exclusionary discipline more often and more harshly than their white female peers, for less serious offenses (Losen & Skiba, 2010; Office for Civil Rights, 2016). For example, a recent federal report confirmed that nearly all Girls of Color were overrepresented in disciplinary actions compared with white girls (United States Government Accountability Office [GAO], 2018). Nationally, this trend of inequitable disciplinary practices contributes to educational opportunity gaps for Girls of Color (M. W. Morris, 2012, 2016). These exclusionary disciplinary practices are linked to increased likelihood of arrest, incarceration, and harsher sentences for Girls of Color (Crenshaw et al., 2015). Despite being only 17% of the population, Girls of Color make up 31% of school referrals to law enforcement for disciplinary infractions and constitute 43% of those arrested on school grounds (National Womens Law Center & NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, 2014). Discrepancies that begin in public schools are exacerbated in youth prisons; Girls of Color are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white girls (Sherman & Balck, 2015). Consequently, a focus on the disciplinary interactions that Girls of Color experience is both timely and necessary.

The purpose of this article, then, is to examine how disciplinary disparities impact Girls of Color2 through their lived experiences using an intersectional framework. The empirical question that guided this study was: What mechanisms propel and limit disciplinary inequities for Girls of Color? This inquiry situates Girls of Color as knowledge generators, allowing them to name both the challenges they face and the solutions they need to dismantle disciplinary disparities. Consequently, we begin the article by describing extant knowledge of ways that disciplinary inequities impact Girls of Color specifically. Next, we introduce Disability Critical Race Theory (DisCrit; Annamma et al., 2013) as an intersectional framing to what is traditionally situated as a unidimensional problem (e.g., focusing on race or ability or gender), exploring how racism and ableism are interdependent, how they interact with sexism and cis-heteropatriarchy, and how they animate the disciplinary experiences of Girls of Color through what we have identified as debilitating practices (Puar, 2017): problematic academic and behavioral interactions that foreclose access to education opportunities and outcomes. Finally, we identify ways that Girls of Color are not simply passive recipients of these processes; instead, they (re)position themselves, or strategically maneuver individual or social marginalization (Davies & Harré, 1990), using savvy and ingenuity.


As concern about the schoolprison nexus and impacts of exclusionary discipline has grown, the issue has been studied from a number of perspectives. Zion and Blanchett (2011) took a historical approach to investigate what propels discipline disparities and other inequities for Students of Color. They explored the context of public school in America, the etiology of inclusive education, and the possibility of interest convergence in its remedy. Zion and Blanchett (2011) concluded that inclusive education was centered on pseudoscientific placement based on ability, while it simultaneously ignored important intersectional issues, such as race, class, culture, and language.

Empirically, Khalifa and Briscoe (2015) took an ethnographic approach to studying school administrations response to the presence of racial discipline gaps in their districts. The authors found that the enduring existence of racism in Americas schools produced negative effects on the outcomes of Students of Color. Khalifa and Briscoes (2015) work also uncovered both the inability and unwillingness of school administrators and the district to change the status quo.

Multiple studies have begun to acknowledge the need to highlight student voice as one key to understanding how racial inequities are (re)produced in schools (Ahram et al., 2011; Baglieri et al., 2011). Recently, Kennedy-Lewis and Murphy (2016) qualitatively mined the school experiences of frequently disciplined middle-schoolers since kindergarten. Students described their awareness that teachers imagined them as bad, leading to cycles of labeling and exclusion. These students also reported that regular infractions and office referrals led to physical removal from the learning environment. This repeated removal and written documentation of the past referrals of frequently disciplined middle schoolers led to teachers presuming students guilt and continuing to apply exclusionary punishment.

As the racialized discipline gap has been a subject of increasing study (Gregory et al., 2010), much of this literature has given attention to Black boys because they are most often disciplined of any racial group (Murphy et al., 2013). However, the focus on Black boys, although necessary, has left the experiences of Black girls in school understudied and undertheorized, effectively erasing the intersectional oppressions they face (Crenshaw et al., 2015; Lindsey, 2018). Further, studies highlighting the voices of Black girls themselves have been underused, leaving a wealth of knowledge unexplored about the specific mechanisms that animate disciplinary disparities (Evans-Winters & Girls for Gender Equality, 2017).

Though still understudied, a focus on the inequities that Black girls face in is schools is growing (Hines-Datiri & Carter Andrews, 2017). Blake et al. (2011) quantitatively explored district discipline records regarding overrepresentation of Black girls in punitive discipline compared with white girls and Latinas, and reasons for that discipline. What they found was that Black girls were disciplined most for defiance, improper dress, and fighting with a student; behaviors that . . . seemed to defy traditional standards of femininity and closely paralleled the behaviors of stereotypical images of  Black  women as hypersexualized, angry, and hostile (p. 100). Annamma et al. (2016) used critical discourse analysis within a sequential mixed-methods design to assess the alignment of reasons for office referrals with dominant narratives about Black girls. Results revealed that school staff applied exclusionary discipline to Black girls for reasons such as detrimental behavior, disobedience, and fighting, all of which subjectively assumed malicious intent of the Black girl to disobey or harm (Annamma et al., 2016). Using a survey design, Epstein et al. (2017) found that teachers and administrators perceived Black girls as less innocent and more adultlike than other girlsa process the authors named adultificationwhich led to Black girls being viewed as less feminine, and likely resulting in more harsh treatment and more frequent exclusionary punishment.

Other work has focused on specific racial groups of girls or Girls of Color more broadly. Using data from the Educational Longitudinal Study through multilevel modeling, Peguero et al. (2017) analyzed the relationship between school punishment and outcomes, finding that Latina students were disproportionately punished in their schools leading to feeling unsafe and unsupported at school, and a perception that school is not just or fair, which, in turn, leads to a higher risk of dropping out. Murphy, Acosta and Kennedy-Lewis and colleagues (2013) interviewed Girls of Color experiencing two or more suspensions in one school year to examine the ways girls strive for respect at school by resisting and advocating for themselves in an environment that appeared hostile, unjust, and oppressive, and how those attempts at empowerment were perceived and misunderstood by teachers.

Though increasing attention has been paid to the discipline of Girls of Color through policy, historical, and statistical analysis, their unique narratives are still largely underrepresented in the discipline disparity literaturea situation that calls for an intersectional framing and methodology that centers and values their voices (Evans-Winters & Girls for Gender Equity, 2017). Studies that have such an approach contextualize discussions about policies that contribute to inequitable disciplinary practices (Wun, 2016), revealing ways in which modern American schooling (re)creates systemic oppression through specific practices and suggesting possible student-generated solutions (Murphy et al., 2013).

Recently, a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO, 2018) came out, and the first sentence was, Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) in K12 public schools, according to GAOs analysis of Department of Education . . . national civil rights data for school year 2013-14, the most recent available. This report highlighted the statistical overrepresentation of these groups but did not discuss other significant findings. For example all Girls of Color except Asian girls were overrepresented when compared with white girls (GAO, 2018). Although girls overall were underrepresented in disciplinary actions, the majority of Girls of Color were overrepresented. What does it mean when we highlight boys being overrepresented in disciplinary actions but ignore Girls of Color? We argue that simultaneous attention to race, gender, and ability is crucial to understanding the discipline disparities that Girls of Color face in school; much of the extant literature, although essential in its generation of knowledge, is incomplete regarding this perspective. Ultimately, though the racialized discipline gap has been, and continues to be, a topic of research, there is still much to elucidate regarding the mechanisms that work for and against the educational success of Girls of Color.3 The present study builds on the important findings from extant research through an intersectional framing and methodology.


To address racial and gender disproportionality in school discipline, DisCrit, an intersectional sibling of Critical Race Theory, informs this study and provides specific affordances that unidimensional analyses often omit (Annamma et al., 2013). We begin this section by identifying these affordances and providing examples of how they apply specifically to Girls of Color and discipline disparities. Then, we explicitly address what how we operationalize an intersectional framing and analysis. Finally, we discuss why DisCrit is a robust theory for interrogating the disciplinary experiences of Girls of Color.


First, DisCrit reveals how the processes of racism and ableism are mutually constituted and naturalized; the inequities that these interdependent processes perpetuate are both systemic and interpersonal (Ahram et al., 2011; Erevelles & Minear, 2010). Put simply, perceptions about race often influence how ones ability (in thinking, learning, and behavior) is imagined, surveilled, and evaluated. Specifically regarding discipline, a students race often influences how educators respond to their behavior; educators tend to interpret the misbehavior of Black students as a pattern and more problematic than when white students commit the same infractions (Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015). In other words, Black students were imagined as less-than in ability to control themselves than white students (or less able), even when the same behavior was displayed. Thus, discipline practices often situate some students as worthy of rewarding, while positioning others as in need of remediation or segregation (Ladson-Billings, 1998). Second, DisCrit exposes how those positioned outside the norm are then constructed as problematic through discourse and practices (Adams & Erevelles, 2016). Once perceived by educators as exhibiting different patterns of behavior, Girls of Color are positioned as deficient and deviant in behavior (M. W. Morris, 2016; Nanda, 2011). Third, we must consider how other oppressions intersect with racism and ableismin this case, understanding that the processes that animate disciplinary disparities will be different for Girls of Color than Boys of Color or white girls (Gill & Erevelles, 2017). Said differently, the ways that cis-heteropatriarchy and white feminism impact Girls of Color are essential to discern when considering disciplinary inequities (Wun, 2016). Fourth, whiteness and ability provide rights and benefits to those constructed as white and simultaneously withhold rights from those kept out of those constructions (Harris, 1993; Leonardo & Broderick, 2011). As Girls of Color are positioned as less-than, they are often barred access to relationships that are authentic and instead are subjected to behavioral approaches that are focused on managing (Annamma, 2015). Finally, DisCrit emphasizes the voices of multiply marginalized populations (Matsuda, 1987). The goal of focusing on the counter-narratives of Girls of Color was to juxtapose their counternarratives with the master-narrativethat Girls of Color act out more (George, 2015)in order to expose practices and policies that contribute to inequities in schools. To do this, we positioned Girls of Color not as problems to be segregated, punished, or ignored, but as legitimate, valuable research partners (Paris & Winn, 2014).


When we position our utilization of DisCrit as an intersectional framing and analysis, we engage the lineage of Black (Collins, 2000), Post-Colonial (Mohanty, 1989), and Critical Race Feminisms (Wing, 2003), in which DisCrit is rooted, to operationalize these concepts. To situate our work in an intersectional framing, we draw from Crenshaw (1989), who stated, If efforts began with addressing the needs and problems of those who are most disadvantaged and with restructuring and remaking the world where necessary, then others who are singularly disadvantaged would also benefit (p. 167). Thus, we unapologetically situate Girls of Color as the focus of our analysis around discipline disparities. We refuse the notion that centering Girls of Color is too narrow, because we believe that Boys of Color and white girls and boys will benefit from re-mediating classroom ecologies based on what Girls of Color experience. Moreover, our claims are not that each of these interactions is solely due to interlocking oppressions. Individually, some white boys and girls, and Boys of Color may be subjected to the same behaviors by the same teachers. Rather, our focus is on these themes that emerge and illustrate patterns of behaviors that Girls of Color note are applied to them. It is the cumulative collection of these behaviors that results in the wearing down, or debilitating, of Girls of Color (Puar, 2017). Further, an intersectional framing is not simply one that focuses on a multiply marginalized individual or populations, but considers the ways a myriad of oppressions manifest in the lives of those people. Consequently, our intersectional framing centers Girls of Color because they are marginalized by interlocking oppressions of racism, ableism, and sexism that shape their disciplinary experiences in schools.

An intersectional analysis is consistently moving fluidly between the microinteractional and the macrosociopolitical. Cho et al. (2013) stated,

(W)hat makes an analysis intersectional . . .is its adoption of an intersectional way of thinking about the problem of sameness and difference and its relation to power. This framingconceiving of categories not as distinct but as always permeated by other categories, fluid and changing, always in the process of creating and being created by dynamics of poweremphasizes what intersectionality does rather than what intersectionality is. (p. 795)

Therefore, an intersectional analysis cannot remain at the interactional level; it must push researchers to consistently consider the ways in which the macrosociopolitical context is (re)produced through those microinteractions. Additionally, the focus of an intersectional analysis is not to distinguish which issue is racism and which is sexism. Nikki Jones (2009) elaborated,


The ubiquitous use (or misuse) of the respective frameworks can sometimes leave the impression that a scholars most important objective is to test the respective theoretical approachesspotting gender or difference here, there, and everywherenot, instead, to use these frameworks to illuminate the complicated and sometimes contradictory ways in which situated interaction is linked to structural circumstances (p. 91)

Hence, our goal is not to say that this interaction was racist while that interaction was sexist. Even when the participants note something as racist or sexist, we simply include itwe do not question their conclusions, we simply pause and listen. Our goal is to link the ways in which these interactions are infused with power that reinforces structural inequities.

It is also important to explicitly articulate that as an intersectional theory, DisCrit highlights the interdependence between racism and ableism while it simultaneously makes space for examination of other marginalized identities and vectors of oppression, which changes the contours of oppression. Said differently, we are using DisCrit to examine how ableism applied to the lens of discipline is enacted for Girls of Color, and we anticipate that these processes will be different than for Boys of Color because of differences in gender and the intersecting cis-heteropatriarchy (Cho et al., 2013). The intersectional lineage of DisCrit is rooted Black and Critical Race Feminism (Collins, 1990; Crenshaw, 1989; Lorde, 1984; Wing 2003); thus, we do not need an additional theory that highlights gender, but we always need to consider the ways in which gender interacts with race and ability.

For the purposes of this study, DisCrit allows us to understand how disciplinary inequities are perpetuated through the withholding of education opportunity based on race, ability, and gender. That is, by rigorously exploring the narratives of Girls of Color, we uncovered debilitating practices, problematic academic and behavioral interactions that foreclose access to being perceived as able and therefore worthy of support in the classroom. Moreover, a DisCrit conceptual framework acknowledges that activism is emancipatory when diverse forms of resistance are accepted and linked to the inequities that communities face. Thus, Girls of Color must be supported in developing their voices to address disciplinary inequities in their lives and connect those inequities to systemic oppressions in society.


This research was part of a larger study that centered the voices of more than 50 Girls of Color, their families (11), and their teachers (11), exploring their understandings of and experiences with school discipline disparities for Girls of Color. Data sources for the full project included student, family, and teacher interviews and focus groups, classroom and district event observations, Education Journey Mapping, and a Cartographers Clinic4 (see Table 1 for full corpus of information).

Table 1. Voices Unheard Corpus of Information




Focus Groups


Girls of Color




Education Journey Maps-21





Cartographers Clinic-1






In this article, we focus specifically on methods and results of interviews (32) and focus groups (17) with Girls of Color.


This project was situated in a school district in a Midwestern midsize town. Here, there was evidence of Students of Color being overrepresented in special education and underrepresented in gifted and talented enrollment based on state-level data.5 Local school district data provided evidence that inequitable academic and disciplinary practices continued despite an ongoing focus on reducing racial inequities, according to the school districts website. Recent events in the school district and larger community exposed interactions between Girls of Color and school staff as flashpoints of discrimination (including the suspension and resignation of a teacher); as such, they required close examination. This study included three school sites: two middle schools and one high school in the school district.


A total of 51 Girls of Color in two middle schools and one high school participated in this study. All students were between 11 and 18 years old and in Grades 612. To ensure the anonymity and confidentiality of our participants, we provide student data in aggregate form (see Table 2).

Table 2. Participant Demographics














Native American






Sexual Orientation







Not Dating






Special Classes













Special Education



No Special Classes



Jobs for American Graduates





Note. Note on race: The breakdown of Multiracial girls gives additional information; 16 identified as Black, seven as Native, and five as Latinx. This adds up to more than 22 because participants identified as multiple races other than white.

Note on special classes. We did have students in special education, but they equaled less than 1%, resulting in table reporting of 0%.


Girls of Color were purposively sampled, aligning with the aims of this study (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Inclusion criteria for focal participants included (a) self-identifying as Girls of Color, (b) attending a middle school or high school in the school district (including suspension, alternative program, credit recovery), and (c) being interested in discussing issues of equity and school discipline. Girls who had and had not experienced exclusionary discipline (e.g., out-of-school suspensions) were both included purposefully so we could get a wide range of perspectives about disciplinary inequities. This is because Girls of Color who had not experienced exclusionary discipline still often experienced smaller moments of discipline in the classroom (e.g., redirections, reprimands) that we did not want to discount, and they were witnesses to others experiencing exclusionary discipline. Girls of Color who had experienced disciplinary issues were included for their unique perspective; they were the most impacted by racial and gender inequities in discipline.


We recruited participants following several processes to ensure access to participation. First, we obtained permission from district officials and school principals. Then, we provided information to parents and students in multiple forms (i.e., electronic and physical flyers, information included in schools daily announcements). The research team held several recruitment meetings and also spoke with Girls of Color individually who had been snowball sampled (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Girls of Color joined the study only after they had obtained written permission from parents or guardians and signed informed assent.


Data collection occurred in two phases: semistructured interviews first, and then focus groups with student participants. The primary investigator and research assistants conducted 32 individual interviews and 17 focus groups between fall 2015 and summer 2017 with Girls of Color. Student interviews traced girls individual education trajectories and specifically recalled their experiences with discipline. Students were encouraged to discuss their experiences of discipline, whether it was discipline that they had experienced themselves, or discipline that they had seen other Girls of Color experience. Interviewers noted that discipline meant more than just receiving a suspension; it also referred to redirection in the classroom. Student focus groups examined national discipline data as a springboard to discussing students perspectives of ecological conditions of school environments and disciplinary practices. For example, students were given time to study data represented in bar charts with the assistance of interviewers, and then they were asked questions such as, Do you think this chart is representative of what you see in your school? Based on their responses, students were asked to explain their responses with examples from their own experiences. In addition, students were asked to describe discipline strategies that work best for Girls of Color. Furthermore, the team created the first interview and focus group guides informed by analysis of school and district documents on discipline and equity; the second and third interviews and focus group guides were based on preliminary analysis of the first interviews and focus groups as well as classroom observations (Seidman, 2006). Girls of Color participated in one to three interviews and an additional one to three focus groups based on their availability, each lasting 12 hours.


The team engaged in iterative data analysis cycles consisting of multiple rounds of coding and meaning making (Bhattacharya, 2017) to understand the disciplinary interactions that Girls of Color were having in school. This was iterative because data were collected and analyzed for emerging themes, and then themes and hunches were incorporated in the next round of data collection (interview and focus group guides) so that participants could member-check throughout the process (Rodwell, 1998). For example, in analyzing the first set of interviews, researchers identified a preliminary theme emerging from the data: that participants believed that teachers expect less academically of Girls of Color. This was included in the next iteration of the second interview protocol. Participants were asked to comment on the statement, Teachers expect less academically from Girls of Color and let researchers know their perception of its accuracy. This structure led us to be more confident in patterns that emerged than if we had waited until after data collection was complete to do a single member check. The team built a code scheme inductively, from specific occurrences to general patterns.

Themes were used as the basis for the code structure as it evolved. Data sources were mined for themes by team members within and across the corpus of information (Erickson, 1986). One of the codes the team developed was related to a student describing her teacher as half-hearted. In exploring what this student meant by the term half-hearted, we looked for moments in her transcript when she elaborated on the concept of half-heartedness. One aspect of half-heartedness the student described was teachers lack of commitment to practices designed to support racial equity. During our team meeting, half-hearted was written on a sheet of butcher paper and taped to the wall. The rest of the team then looked for similar patterns in the transcripts they had read and provided evidence of ways in which students described other aspects of half-heartedness. For example, another aspect of half-heartedness as students described pertained to the ways in which teachers did not find alternative ways of teaching content even when students had communicated that the lesson was racially problematic. As more excerpts were posted under the code half-hearted, a working definition of lack of will or willful refusal to engage in conversation, actions, or programs to address race, racism, or other inequities was created (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. Half-hearted Implementation code with transcript excerpts

Note. Code names, definitions, and excerpts were taped to a poster sheet on the wall to sort and view density. In this case, the code name is Half-hearted Implementation, which was defined as lack of will or willful refusal to engage in conversation, actions, or programs to address race, racism, or other inequities. The other pieces of paper are excerpts from the transcript that were coded as Half-hearted Implementation; these were printed and cut or copied out of transcripts by team members as part of the analysis process.

The theme of half-heartedness was gradually built up with evidence from multiple transcripts (see Figure 2). For example, a student described how another Girl of Color was sexually assaulted on school grounds. She described the response when she and other students asked what was going to happen to the perpetrators:

And theyre like, oh, they left school like left the campus so they said theres nothing they can do about it now and then eventually the guys came back and they brought them to the office and they set them in the conference room and they told her she could write up a report with the SRO but there was no SRO here at the time and so they like her dad sent her brothers here and they called the police and I just felt like a lot of the stuff that happened to fix the situation was because her dad called the police and took control of it. And thats basically what happens with race issues is people are just like oh go sit down, youll be fine.

From this and other transcripts, the definition of half-hearted was expanded to include the remedies to racism as well, when Girls of Color felt that the responses to reporting racist issues were tepid.


Figure 2. Using Dedoose to code Half-hearted Implementation in additional participant transcripts

Note. After unitizing and sorting, the transcripts were coded in Dedoose, a coding software program. Team members selected the sentence or part of a sentence that was included in the excerpt and selected (on the right) the appropriate code.

Codes developed as described earlier were used as the basis for building of themes and describing the connections between themes. Consequently, data sources were mined for themes by team members within and across the corpus of information (Erickson, 1986).

In this way, the research team moved through several stages of analysis in the initial rounds of coding, including unitizing, categorizing, defining, and code application (Rodwell, 1998; Saldaña, 2013). First, the team unitized the data by looking at the smallest, most meaningful pieces of information expressed by the participants and then sorted the data into meaningful and nonoverlapping categories (Rodwell, 1998). Categories were then defined and applied across the data sources. The team stayed close to the data by using the language from the participants to define the categories. Returning to our example of half-heartedness, because this was the language used by the participant, we felt it was necessary to keep this as a code name to center the voice of Girls of Color. A theoretical and analytical commitment to intersectionality directs us to showcase and capture, in girls own words and to the greatest degree possible, perspectives on issues of violence, relationships, victimization, and resistance (Chesney-Lind & Jones, 2010, pp. 23). This initial unitizing, categorizing, and defining was completed in three rounds before we were sufficiently satisfied that we had a code scheme that we could apply to the entire corpus of information (Erikson, 2004). Then, defined categories and leveled codes (i.e., primary codes, subcodes) were applied across data sources. In this way, multiple rounds of initial coding resulted in emerging patterns (Miles & Huberman, 1994). By applying and reapplying the categories, the team members arranged the data systematically within the emerging coding structure, also known as codifying (Saldaña, 2013). The research team then completed axial coding wherein codes were compared, reorganized, and refocused (Saldaña, 2013). For example, the subcode of Racialized and/or Gendered Self/Others was collapsed into the primary code of (Girls of Color) Meaning Making, wherein the original primary code definition was expanded, making the subcode superfluous.

Subsequently, a commitment to aligning method with theory led the research team to link its initial inductive approach to a deductive move, wherein codes were grouped into enabling and disabling practices (Broderick & Leonardo, 2016). While we began from this orientation, over time and sustained interaction with our corpus of information, we uncovered the ways in which the practices that students described were more debilitating than disabling (Puar, 2017). We recognized that students described experiencing anger, frustration, and helplessness and how these conditions negatively impacted their work. For example, Girls of Color being by passed for rewards was more a debilitating practice because it foreclosed opportunities for meaningful participation, which disabling practices did not adequately capture. Girls reactions to perceived inequitable treatment were also renamed as (re)positioning, in line with positioning theory (Davies & Harré, 1990; see Figure 3).


Figure 3. Sorting unitized data

Note. After unitizing and sorting excerpts from the transcripts, team members refined codes by making changes to code names and definitions. In this case, the code that was first named Girls Response to Unequal Treatment was renamed to Girls Positioning and (Re)positioning to align with Davies and Harrés (1990) positioning theory.

The team completed an additional reliability measure led by the primary investigator. Dedoose (SocioCultural Research Consultants, 2017), the online data analysis program used by the group, supplied the platform for this test. The supplementary examination allowed the group to ensure consistency across code applications by comparing the primary investigators use of codes with those identified by members of the research team. Through this test, the team members examined and discussed their code application, increasing their reliability. After these steps, the researchers completed a third round of coding using the designated code tree on the secure online data analysis program (Dedoose). Finally, the team members sought disconfirming evidence to ensure they had considered the full corpus of data (Erickson, 1986).


Member Checking

Member checking allowed researchers to review findings and interpretations with participants so that they could confirm accuracy, and clarify and add information (Birt et al., 2016; Brantlinger et al., 2005). Member checking occurred throughout the data-collection process. Researchers discussed initial findings with participants during interviews and focus groups by asking follow-up questions and using elicitation techniques. For example, we read statements to Girls of Color that represented another participants response or recurring theme during initial data collection and analysis; we used the participants actual words (e.g., Girls of Color get disciplined more harshly). The students decided whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement and then added to or discussed the statement further. We asked participants whether they agreed with statements others had made as well as with initial themes and conclusions that the team drew from previous data.


In addition to ongoing member checking, we used multiple strategies to support the trustworthiness, or credibility, of findings. First, we collected data over a period of prolonged engagement2 yearsthat included participants taking part in multiple focus groups and interviews (Brantlinger et al., 2005). Distinct types of data collection informed one another in an iterative process. For example, previous document analysis and interview and focus group responses informed the development of subsequent interview guides (Rodwell, 1998). The use of multiple forms of data provided triangulation as we formed data codes and themes based on commonalities in students responses (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Further, we identified themes using words from the students responses, allowing researchers to remain close to the data.

During data analysis, researcher triangulation contributed to increased trustworthiness as well (Brantlinger et al., 2005; Miles et al., 2014). Throughout the three rounds of coding previously described, multiple researchers read and coded multiple transcripts. Coding transcripts multiple times allowed researchers to compare their use of the codes and refine codes in a systematic way (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Saldaña, 2013). Collaboration and discussion throughout the data analysis process resulted in the continual refinement of codes and data interpretations, supporting trustworthiness (Brantlinger et al., 2005; Miles et al., 2014). That said, during portions of each research meeting, team members focused on trustworthiness (Seidman, 2006) by discussing each code definition and seeking agreement for reliability (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Moreover, frequent journaling and weekly team meetings guided the reflexive element of this complex process (Rodwell, 1998).


The purpose of this study, supported by an intersectional framework, was to examine how Girls of Color understand and experience disciplinary inequities in schools. Interviews and focus groups with Girls of Color revealed that they identified the root of disciplinary inequities as classroom interactions. Specifically, Girls of Color identified problematic academic and behavioral responses of teachers, administration, and various school staff6 to girls requests for support in the classroom. In reaction to being treated unfairly in schools and classrooms, Girls of Color (re)positioned to strategically defend their integrity and actively resist marginalization (Davies & Harré, 1990). First, we describe debilitating teacher patterns in terms of academic support and then behavioral rewards. Then, we illuminate ways in which Girls of Color repositioned in resistance to school-based marginalization.


Here, we focus on the debilitating teacher patterns of (1) withholding academic support and (2) applying behavioral supports inequitably. We describe how teacher activities foreclosed access to full participation and academic supports, and how these become coded into the already problematic discourse of discipline. We focus on teachers because Girls of Color identified interactions with teachers most frequently as the mechanism that animated disciplinary disparities. We defined debilitating teacher patterns as ones that disrupted engagement and meaningful learning for the participants, resulting in Girls of Color feeling disconnected from school.

Withholding Academic Support

Educators required that students engage in appropriate, nondisruptive help-seeking behaviors (i.e., raising their hands or waiting for their turn). Our findings highlighted how, despite engaging in these appropriate classroom practices, Girls of Color did not receive educational support in meaningful ways. In other words, Girls of Color reported the ways in which teachers withheld academic support. Specifically, Girls of Color discussed (a) being ignored, (b) receiving adverse responses, and (c) having rewards withheld.

Ignoring. We defined ignoring as Girls of Color being disregarded when they explicitly asked for help or wanted to participate. Girls of Color provided several examples of teachers overlooking their requests or brushing them off when they asked for academic support. Zendaya7 recalled,

She doesnt explain things. Shes like, Look at the problem. And then shell turn back to another student and explain it and then shell turn, and Ill be like thats not, youre not, youre not helping me and shell say back, Look at the numbers. And shell turn back and start explaining it to the other person.

Zendaya describes an instance of her white female teacher discounting her requests for help through repeating directions without new information. Zendaya also notes that this reaction to her requests is common for this teacher. Many Girls of Color felt that teachers ignored them even though they were fully engaged in class activities and meeting academic expectations. In a focus group, Gabby and Sabrina shared the following:

Gabby: Yeah, because like when we its me and Sabrina, when its time to read, sometimes me and Sabrina will raise our hand, and hell look at us and then hell pick somebody else.

Sabrina: Even if they dont have their hand raised.

Here, Gabby and Sabrina illustrated how ignoring was racialized and gendered. Moreover, others who were not meeting academic expectations were engaged by this white male teacher.

Malia and Samira described how the ignoring often felt purposeful or intentional.

Malia: No, I was going to say your hand will be in the air, and then shell just go to somebody else.

Samira: Yeah, but she sees it, and then-

Malia: Shell just look exactly at you.

Gabby, Sabrina, Malia, and Samira all used similar termslooking right at youas white teachers ignored them and selected someone else. Consequently, Girls of Color felt they were being actively denied the opportunity to engage in academics by both white male and female teachers even when meeting expectations (e.g., raising hand, asking questions). These instances of ignoring were not isolated events; Girls of Color from all the schools and across grades shared similar experiences. The ways in which Girls of Color talked about being ignored signaled how they felt overlooked collectively and persistently.

The racial component of the ways teachers ignored Girls of Color was brought up several times by participants throughout our interviews and focus groups. In discussion on this racial nuance, Abigail said, Usually . . . like theres, like, two people raising our hand, um . . . the teacher might, um, or they, usually the teacher goes to the white kid first. Similarly, Kennedy described her experiences of being ignored and why she thought teachers overlooked her and other Students of Color, particularly Girls of Color. She said, Because, throughout my, like, school career, Ive noticed that teachers kind of look over me when I ask questions or something, because I feel like they assume that Im not going to get if they explain it to me. She went on to discuss why being overlooked was also due to her race and gender, [Teachers] just dont expect Girls of Color . . . to do that well in school [because] of stereotypes. Kennedy not only experienced being overlooked, but she also further made a crucial observation; she interpreted being ignored as a function of teachers having low expectations of Girls of Color, despite meeting academic expectations.

Here, DisCrit tenet one (Annamma et al., 2013) revealed how Girls of Color observed racism and ableism operating interdependently. The consequences of racism and ableism working independently were revealed when the Girls were ignored when they needed academic support and when they wanted to engage in classroom activities. It is crucial to note that girls observed that while they were ignored, their white peers received support. This ignoring sent a message in which Kennedy, like many other Girls of Color in this study, believed that stereotypes about race, ability, and gender perpetuated teachers ignoring of Girls of Color when it came to academics. Ignoring occurred despite Girls of Color being actively engaged and meeting academic expectations.

Adverse responses. Some girls pointed out that even when teachers did respond to their help-seeking gestures (i.e., raising hand), the responses they received were antagonistic, unhelpful, or even punitive. Therefore, we defined adverse responses as Girls of Color receiving reprimands when they needed or asked for help. Girls of Color described how teachers shamed them publicly if they did not understand the work or requested help. Myosha explained, The um, math teacher, she wasnt very good. She would, um, we would always ask her questions, she would be like, Well, I just told you this, why dont you know it? Myosha asked her white female teacher for academic support, demonstrating her active engagement in learning. Instead of answering her question, this white female teacher chastened her for not knowing in front of the entire class.

Girls of Color also revealed the ways in which adverse teacher responses were unhelpful or at odds with what was best for the students academically. Sophia said when she asked for help, Some of the teachers are like, You can do it on your own, just try harder! Sophia reported how she often struggled with work because teachers responses were not useful. More so, telling a student who is actively asking for academic support to try harder implied that not understanding was the result of lack of effort on the part of Girls of Color. Abigail received another form of unhelpful supportthe white female teacher told her exactly what to do without explaining the reasoning necessary for her to solve future math problems. Abigail expressed, She doesnt teach it. She continued, She tells me what to do, so it doesnt really help. Abigail signaled that telling her what to do was inadequate, and by teaching, she expected support that was substantive in terms of improving her understanding of the learning material. In other words, she was not interested in superficial forms of support that entailed giving her the right answer; instead, she wanted support that created opportunities for meaningful learning. While read on their own, these two instances could be conceived as the culture of mathematics. However, other Girls of Color talked positively about their math teachers. Moreover, these adverse responses happened across content areas. Consequently, this is about how Girls of Color are responded to when they ask for help. We categorized unhelpful responses as adverse because they often imply a lack of effort or remove motivation to learn on the part of Girls of Color.

At times, the adverse responses that Girls of Color received were also punitive. In other words, teachers became angry as a response to requests for academic support by Girls of Color. In describing this reality, Myosha shared, [The teacher] would always get like mad if we asked her questions. Providing adverse responses to requests for help resulted in Girls of Color not being able to complete their classwork. This made them less likely to ask for help in the future. Rosario said,

I dont know, hes just not, he doesnt teach very well, he doesnt know how to explain things well, hes just like, Oh, well, you have to do this, and then this. I was like, I dont know how to do that. And then, he usually gets like, really frustrated, and then I get frustrated, and Im like, Ill just have one of my friends tell me. Because with my friends telling me, its so much easier than him telling me.

Rosario described how inadequate academic support provided by her white male teacher aggravated both the teacher and herself; as a result, she chose to receive support from her friends. Although Rosario used her peers as resources, it is unreasonable to assume that support provided by other students was adequate in terms of improving her learning. Nonetheless, Girls of Color such as Rosario reported that because teachers withheld academic support, they refrained from approaching teachers and often looked to their peers.

Girls of Color felt that they were actively discouraged from asking questions, which then led some to quit doing schoolwork. Sophia said, When you dont get it, and then they get mad at you for not doing anything for the whole hour, when you dont even understand what to do because they didnt help you. Sophia named how her teacher became angry because she was unable to engage in the lesson. Sophia was frustrated, not only because she did not understand the lesson and received little support, but also because the teacher got angry with her. What Myosha and Sophia described was illustrative of what many Girls of Color stated in terms of both white male and female teachers reacting to their requests in anger. This finding is indeed concerning, considering that Girls of Color are repeatedly told to ask for help; however, instead of receiving meaningful support, they are further marginalized from meaningful learning opportunities. DisCrit tenet three (Annamma et al., 2013) revealed the social and material consequences that resulted from teachers discouraging Girls of Color from asking for help through responding adversely when the Girls did ask for help. Consequently, when teachers made Girls of Color afraid to ask for help, Girls of Color sometimes could not complete their work, or they asked their friends for help. At times, this resulted in lowered grades or behavioral punishment, linking individual interactions to large-scale academic and discipline gaps for Girls of Color. Said differently, these are some of the processes that animate the statistics.

Denying rewards. Withholding academic support was also identified in the ways in which teachers did not positively reinforce Girls of Color when they did something well. We defined denying rewards as Girls of color not receiving recognition when they met and/or exceeded academic expectations. Girls of Color in this study repeatedly described how teachers withheld praise and behavioral rewards even when girls were reaching academic standards. Diana said,

Um, well, like, um, in my Spanish class, like, if Im doing my work, the Spanish teacher would give other kids, um, that are white [behavioral rewards]. Well, I am doing my work too. But she doesnt really, like, notice that. Um, and I dont know, thats like, shes not noticing that on purpose, or like

It is important to juxtapose Dianas remark with our earlier finding of Girls of Color being ignored when making academic requests. Simultaneously, Diana pointed out how her good academic behavior is ignored by her white female teacher. Samira and Jameelah agreed with this observation of their teachers and added how these selective ignoring patterns were raced and gendered. They shared the following:

Samira: But most of the time the teachers will just be looking at you, and then you know that youre doing good, but then every time they just think, Should I give them a [behavioral reward] or not, even if they do good? They still dont do anything.

Jameelah: Yeah, and like, yeah, they (Students of Color)  get in trouble more. I feel like we have [behavioral rewards] and you get them if youre, like, behaving in the class or doing your work. And I feel like, um, Kids of Color even if they are doing work they wont receive those [rewards] as much as white kids.

Many Girls of Color reported that they were overlooked when doing what was expected of them and that by ignoring, teachers withheld accolades they deserved. Gabby also reported that her rewards were withheld while her white peers were recognized:

(W)hat she does, like, if, when we go above and beyond, I guess, teachers dont give us as much recognition as if like, um, theyll be like or theyll be like, I wasnt expecting that from you, and then when a person who wasnt a Person of Color goes above and beyond, theyre, like, give them a bunch of recognition, or be like, I expected that out of you. Then, like, from someone who, I guess wasnt, isnt a Person of Color and they do poorly then, like, they will push them harder and, like, hope that theyll have a better future and then they wont push People of Color harder.

Gabby noted how teachers did not implement positive academic supports in race- and gender-neutral ways. Recurrently, Girls of Color identified how educational supports were withheld, while white peers needs were addressed, and efforts were rewarded. DisCrit tenet three (Annamma et al., 2013) supported the intersectional analysis of the social and material consequences of teachers. It is essential to note that this denying of positive reinforcements is another form of punishment not recorded by disciplinary statistics that illustrates Girls of Color being overrepresented in punitive discipline. While Girls of Color may be disciplined less than Boys of Color, they describe being punished in different ways, such as through withholding of academic supports. Thus, withholding academic supports is both gendered and raced, and it is debilitating because when Girls of Color need help or when they are meeting academic expectations, teachers disrupt meaningful learning, and Girls of Color are denied academic support and positive reinforcement.

Applying Behavioral Supports Inequitably

The second pattern that Girls of Color in this study frequently described was how behavioral reinforcements were applied in inequitable ways. That is, the first set of findings highlighted the ways in which academic supports were withheld, whereas this section emphasizes the findings that behavioral supports were also applied problematically. Girls of Color described the (a) asymmetrical application of consequences, (b) racialized and gendered punishments, and (c) overlooked and underutilized behavior supports. Schoolwide behavioral supports are set in place with the intention of responding positively to student behavior (Eber et al., 2002). The principles that guide these support systems are meant to help students recognize their behaviors and help address them in constructive ways (Eber et al., 2002). Unfortunately, Girls of Color in our study reported the ways in which teachers implemented these supports in unfair ways.

Asymmetry. Girls of Color pointed out the mismatch between their misdemeanors and the severity of the consequences they received. We defined asymmetry as Girls of color identifying a discrepancy between behavior and the received consequence. Many times, this asymmetry was raced and gendered. For example, Girls of Color witnessed this asymmetry applied to Boys of Color. Sabrina stated,

Mr. Hardy, I had him for one of my teachers last year, and he does have the tendency to kind of take your punishment over the limits, um, I dont think he tries to all the time but um, sometimes, you know, you can tell. . . . And so, you know he just has the tendency to take the punishments over the limits a little bit.

Sabrina went on to describe how this white male teacher applied disproportionate consequences to a Boy of Color whose behavior Mr. Hardy deemed inappropriate.

The Boy of Color Sabrina referred to had sprayed too much cologne on himself during the passing period. When he arrived in class, the teacher made a spectacle by opening the classroom door and making comments as people walked by, eventually making the boy cry. Sabrina, who was a witness to this incident, recognized that the teachers hypermasculine response of humiliating a Boy of Color was over the limits, signaling the asymmetry between actions and consequences. Moreover, this asymmetry was shaped by particular teachers performing masculinity through punishment. Thus, Girls of Color were not only subjected to asymmetry in disciplinary responses themselves, but they frequently observed Boys of Color subjected to distinct gendered nature of escalated discipline as well.

Consider Lolas experiences with her teacher; she specified how her teacher took things overboard. Lola explained,

Mr. ONeil takes things overboard. Like, he will write you up and like, for having your phone in the gym. And, and then every other teachers like, Dontput your phone up cause Mr. ONeil will write you up. Literally they say that to me every time I have my phone out. Put your phone up cause Mr. ONeil will write you up. And Mr. ONeil comes over and is like, Thats a [minor infraction].

Lola explained how another white male, Mr. ONeil, would write her up for the same behavior that other teachers, regardless of gender, would simply remind her about. According to this schools handbook, minor infractions and the subsequent disciplinary actions were reserved for behaviors that impede learning and safety. In reading through the school manual, Lola taking her phone out did not meet the conditions of a violation; as such, Lolas observation that the disciplinary action was overboard was valid.

Girls of Color also felt targeted by teachers, which caused them to become frustrated, escalating negative interactions between teachers and students. Marisol described a white female substitute teachers response to her while she was doing her work:

I got like um this one teacher that I didnt really like, she was a substitute, but she like worked in the school. Our normal teacher, we had this chair where we could lay down and I was putting my legs up while I was reading a book and I was mad about something and I wasnt in a good mood. And then she was like, You look lazy. Put your legs down. And I was like, But our teacher always lets us do this. And she was like, Well Im not your teacher so I can tell you to do this. And like, since I was already mad, I was like, Youre not even a real teacher though. Then we started arguing and I got [in-school suspension] for that.

Marisol described how she received in-school suspension even when she was engaging in appropriate behaviors based on her classroom teachers expectations. Thus, there was an asymmetry between the behavior that was normally allowed in her class, and a consequence applied based on a white female substitute teachers demands. Marisols experiences were similar to E. Morriss (2007) findings wherein Black girls were scolded or received negative responses from their teachers when they questioned their teachers actions. It is also important to note how DisCrit tenet six reveals how whiteness and ability as property are animated through the teachers suggestion that Marisol looked lazy even though she was doing her work, engaging gendered and racialized tropes of Women and Girls of Color as lazy (Annamma et al., 2016). This experience, and many others that the participants described, reinforces prior literature that Girls of Color are targeted for discipline, often for unsubstantiated reasons that align with gendered and racialized stereotypes, such as attitude (Epstein et al., 2017; M. W. Morris, 2016). Marisol described how she was aggravated and how the issue, or nonissue in this instance, escalated from there. The asymmetries that Girls of Color highlighted resulted in punishment and therefore violated the basic principles of positive behavior supports that aim to support student success.

Racialized and gendered punishments. Similar to how Girls of Color felt that academic supports were withheld and behavioral rewards were not applied fairly, they also felt that punitive consequences for behaviors were applied unevenly between themselves and their white female peers. We defined racialized and gendered punishments as Girls of Color discussing inequitable behavioral consequences applied by race and/or gender. In other words, not only were Girls of Color not supported in the classroom equally, but they also reported that they were punished unfairly as related to their white male and female peers. Gabby shared her experiences:

Cause, like, she, like, comes early for lunch or something, well always be late, but when it comes up to (white female students), shes always like, Its fine, its fine. But when it comes to me and Sabrina, shell like, You got five minutes out of class. You got this and this and that . . . But when it comes to other white kids, (compared) to other (Girls of Color) shes all like, Thats all fine, just do not do it again.

This was not the only instance of racialized and gendered punishment that Gabby identified. Later in the focus group, Gabby shared another example:

Yeah, and then one (white) girl talking to her, he listens to like two seconds, and be like “Yeah, yeah. Yeah, you just get back to work. But when me and Sabrina get in trouble he is always like, Get out of the class from, yeah, like, go sit out in the hallway, go to the counselors office. But when I see [white female student], when she gets in trouble, hell just be like, Please stop. Dont do that again.

These excerpts highlight the extent of the ways in which Gabby felt she was punished excessively by her white female and male teachers, while the behavior of white students was ignored. These racialized-gendered punishment disparities demonstrate how Gabby was experiencing adultification wherein she was disciplined harshly (i.e., removed from class) instead of talked to for what were youthful actions (Epstein et al., 2017). In fact, Girls of Color provided several examples in which the same behaviors elicited very different responses for themselves versus their white peers. Jameelah and Diana discussed unfair treatment as well:

Jameelah: Like, in our Spanish class, we all had our own phone up, but, if we do, um, like my Spanish teacher, like, she yells at me, Jameelah! . . . But then her favorite students, which are white. They always had their phone up. They never get in trouble for it. If they do, its just like a warning.

Diana: And Ive seen her, like, pass by students who were on their phone and who are white. She just didnt say anything.

Jameelah: Mm hm.

Diana: It’s like—

[Interviewer]: How does that make you feel?

Jameelah: Upset.

Diana: Yeah. Upset!

Jameelah: Disrespected.

Diana and Jameelah described the frustration they felt when teachers treated Girls of Color unfairly as opposed to their white peers. Girls of Color persistently brought up the disparate ways teachers responded to their behaviors in comparison to their white female peers. This inequitable racialized and gendered system of punishments negatively impacted the feelings of comfort that Girls of Color had in class.

Overlooked and underutilized supports. We defined overlooked and underutilized supports as Girls of Color pinpointing positive behavioral responses that were absent in classroom interactions, and thus did not support them to redirect their behavior in positive ways. Girls of Color claimed that the ways in which teachers applied behavior supports were problematic because teachers did not provide adequate warnings, and they did not take time to understand how and why the girls engaged in certain behaviors. For example, when asked if the teachers are supposed to give them a redirection if they are off task, the focus group resounded with, Yes! Yes! And they continued:

Abigail: But they never told me.

Tanisha: They’re supposed to warn you, like that’s-

Eden: Not to do it again or know what you did wrong.

Abigail: It’s like, but she never told me, she just kept sitting there staring at me.

Eden: Yeah, on her computer, tapping [minor infractions], like. . .

Throughout the preceding description, Girls of Color noted the passive-aggressive nature of discipline when a white female teacher refused to give them warnings or interact with them in any way, and simply recorded minor infractions. In this conversation, the participants revealed the importance of warnings. This racialized and gendered response was one in which white female teachers refused to address behaviors and instead simply silently punished them. More generally, Girls of Color emphasized the importance of warnings in a behavioral feedback system. They stated that warnings functioned in ways that allowed them to understand what they were doing wrong and to change their behaviors. Girls of Color were not only aware of the necessity of being given fair warning, but also pointed out the ways in which their behavioral-support system demanded it. Alexa noted, No, you get three strikes, (then) you get a [minor infraction], but sometimes teachers skip the three strikes and give you a [minor infraction]. Girls of Color recognized that skipping warnings was unfair not only because they were necessary for students to adjust their behavior, but also because school rules stipulated that this protocol be followed. Skipping warnings was a violation of the principles that justify positive behavioral supports, which aim to allow students to redirect their behavior in positive ways (Eber et al., 2002). When warnings that were intended to help students regulate their own behaviors were withheld, it took away supports that the girls found useful.

In addition to the absence of redirections, Girls of Color also pointed out blatant failures in applying behavior supports altogether. For instance, Tajari explained how a white male teachers failure to set and maintain behavioral standards impacted her:

Um, he doesnt really teach much. He just kind of goes through the notes, and you write them down, and then he gives you like coloring sheets to do, and then he gives you the test that has like all this crazy information on it that wasnt really in the notes. So, most of it, you have to kind of go find it on your own. And, since he doesnt teach, he doesnt really care what other people do, so everyones crazy. Theyre usually on their phones or sitting on desks and yelling across the room. . . . So, when everybodys yelling around me and Im trying to like understand, since Im basically teaching the whole thing to myself, its kind of hard to do when its crazy in the class.

Tajari described the chaotic nature of the class and observed that it was due to the white male teacher allowing students to be disruptive in the classroom. Behavior supports are intended to be used so that students engage appropriately in academic work. Tajari noted how the disruptive classroom impeded her learning.

Taylor also argued that when chaos occurred, she was often singled out while positive behavior supports were absent.

So, but then, he would just be whatever and like ignore stuff like that, but the real issue is that hed be talking, or wed be doing something, and like, several groups of people would be talking around the room. But if I was talking in any of those groups, hed be like, Taylor, quit talking. And so itd always be me. Hed call me out every time. So you know I start getting sick of this, and hed be like, ask me to stay after class, and hed be like, can you just not talk all the time? Hed tell me stuff like that. And Id be like, no, Im not going to not talk while youre talking if everybody else is talking. But so, anyway . . . thats basically what was happening. He was basically just singling me out. Because I know for a fact I was almost never the only one talking when he did that.

It is important to note that the Girls of Color in this study, like Tajari and Taylor, were not opposed to behavior supports despite not receiving them equitably. They recognized that, if applied correctly, behavior supports may encourage their learning. Thus, the problems were due to teachers withholding behavioral supports in ways that impeded learning.

Finally, Girls of Color discussed how teachers applied behavioral supports in ways that ignored the context of their behavior. Zendaya said,

I got a [minor infraction] cause (a student) said to Ms. Stevens that I called him fat and Ms. Stevens didnt even like ask me about it . . . (the student) explained what happened and Ms. Stevens like, Ok, youve got a [minor infraction]. I was like, You didnt even dig into what happened, you didnt check no security cameras, you didnt do nothing, nothing at all.

Zendaya noted how this white female teacher gave Zendaya a minor infraction despite having several resources at her disposal to find the underlying cause of what happened. What the teacher deemed was the correct version of the story, based on the other students description of the events, determined the consequences Zendaya faced. Again, the gendered and racialized nature of this discipline did not always involve a direct confrontation with Girls of Color; the teacher simply refused to engage with them while meting out punishment. Girls of Color recognized that this approach was an unfair application of consequences because the context in which behaviors occur is as important as the behaviors themselves.


Our final finding exhibited how Girls of Color refused to accept the inequitable academic and behavioral supports; instead, they intentionally resisted marginalization in school through (re)positioning (Davies & Harré, 1990). DisCrit tenet seven supports all forms of resistance (Annamma et al., 2013), including repositioning. We defined repositioning as Girls of Color engaging in strategic maneuvering in response to individual or societal marginalization. Girls of Color described these intentional moves as ways of maintaining and defending their integrity, as well as that of their peers, when experiencing inequitable treatment in school. Here, we discuss how repositioning occurred by (a) speaking out, (b) remaining silent, and (c) being punished for repositioning.  

Speaking Out

Girls of Color discussed the ways in which they communicated with school staff when they witnessed unequal disciplinary treatment. We defined speaking out as Girls of Color deliberately engaging adults and peers when they experience or witness problematic practices. Tajari explained, Usually, Ill speak out, especially if its like an administrator or something, Ill be like, No, thats not how that was supposed to go, they obviously didnt deserve it. Tajari explained that she spoke up when she saw injustices in school, and she felt comfortable talking with administration about unjust negative consequences. Alanna, on the other hand, explained how purposeful she was about choosing whom she confided in when she responded to injustices. Alanna said, I tell my, my favorite teacher in the school. It is important to note how Girls of Color were intentional in who they chose to tell. Like Tajari, some girls went right to the source, while others, like Alanna, were careful to confide in adults they trusted and they believed would be supportive. There was no gendered or raced pattern regarding whom the girls held accountable or confided in; instead, it was based on strategic evaluations of different criteria, which varied for each girl (e.g., when it was most needed, whom they trusted).

Girls of Color also discussed ways in which they communicated to peers concerning marginalizing treatment. In the following excerpt, Zendaya refers to an incident in which students in her class were disrupting her by being noisy. Unable to concentrate, she asked her peers to be quiet. Instead of quieting the class, the teacher asked Zendaya to be quiet too. Zendaya (re)positioned and responded, And theres no too in that either because like Im not doing anything, Im telling them to be quiet, so I can focus on what Im learning instead of what theyre doing. In this excerpt, Zendaya pointed out to the teacher that she was not the one who needed to be reprimanded. Zendaya explained how the teacher was failing her by not managing the behavior of other students or recognizing her desire to learn. She also made sure to note that she was trying to engage in appropriate learning, whereas it was her peers who were not; thus, reprimanding her was unfounded. In other words, Zendaya wanted to engage in her learning, but her teacher silenced her when she asked her peers to be quiet. Rather than acknowledging that she wanted to learn, her teacher made attempts to control and mold her behavior into what white femininity considers good or proper, such as speaking in a quieter way or assuming passivity (E. Morris, 2007).

Often, Girls of Color described that they had to address challenging behaviors of their peers. Tamara explained, Like, if someone makes me mad, I will, like, tell them to stop being rude and everything. Some Girls of Color responded verbally, while others used nonverbal tactics. In contrast, Alexa described a nonverbal approach to addressing her peers behaviors in class. Alexa said, But sometimes I dont have to say anything. Sometimes, all I have to do is just look at them, and theyll be quiet. Speaking up and speaking out or using gestures were responses girls used to counter disruption from peers and hold adults accountable. Here, we return to findings mentioned earlier, noting that Girls of Color felt unsupported when they asked for help and were punished inequitably when they did not meet behavioral standards. Here, they noted that while they were being ignored and punished, other students were able to maintain problematic behavior in the classroom. It is also important to note that this was a majority-white district and that Girls of Color reported that they were in classes with mostly white peers. Consequently, Girls of Color named several instances wherein they had to manage the behaviors of their (white) peers when white teachers did not.

Remaining Silent

Girls of Color were purposeful in how they repositioned themselves in the face of marginalization. We defined remaining silent as Girls of Color intentionally determining the best ways to respond and when to respond (or not). For example, Girls of Color described times when they chose to remain silent, avoid certain people, or ignore unequal treatment in order to avoid further conflict or to de-escalate tense situations. Veronica explained how she responded in her second-period class with a really strict teacher. She said, I try my best to like just to, like, lay low. And I dont really want to step over my boundaries, so I kinda stay quiet. I dont wanna, like, get in trouble cause like, if I speak up, and then people would be, like, Veronica did this. Veronica was purposeful in her silence wherein she understood that speaking up in this instance would not work to her benefit, so she chose to stay quiet. Similarly, Denisia also countered marginalization with silence: I think the only reason why I dont get in trouble much is because, like, I usually try to stay quiet, a good kid. In many ways, Denisias tactic of being quiet was preventative; therefore, being quiet held the material affordance of not getting into trouble (Broderick & Leonardo, 2016). Turning to DisCrit tenet seven, Denisias creative act of resistance and strategy of survival was employing silence (Annamma et al., 2013). Moreover, both Veronica and Denisia recognized that by employing silence selectively, they could avoid marginalization, but we must ask, at what cost? Why is it necessary for Girls of Color to quell themselves in order for them to avoid problematic academic and behavioral interactions in the classroom? What does it cost Girls of Color to swallow their thoughts and questions? What is the impact on the rest of the class that loses all the brilliance that Girls of Color have to offer? This finding is also essential to highlight because Girls of Color are so often positioned as loud (E. Morris, 2007), yet many reported remaining silent strategically. This is not to imply that when Girls of Color are loud, they deserve punishment; it is to remind us that resistance varies individually and does not look a specific way for all Girls of Color (Annamma & Morrison, 2018).

Punishing Repositioning

Despite Girls of Color resisting with savvy and ingenuity in a myriad of ways (Annamma, 2018a), some school staff viewed their responses as insubordinate, resulting in Girls of Color receiving additional punitive consequences. We defined punishing repositioning as Girls of Color identifying punitive response to resisting problematic patterns. Alexa explained, I would get in trouble a lot because Id stand up for myself and the teachers would always be like, Um well you need to be nicer. Alexa discussed how teachers would punish her for standing up for herself, instead of supporting her when other students would pick on and bother her. Bianca also described how her white male teacher responded with punitive actions when she repositioned herself. Bianca explained,

I was just sitting there, and then he was screaming at me at the top of his lungs, like, Sit

down. And, I was sitting down, and I was like, I am sitting down. And he was like,   Go to the office. And I asked him why, and hes like, um, Go to the office or Im   writing you up. And I asked why again, and he was like, Ok, Im writing you up, and   youre gonna have two lunch detentions.

Here, Bianca shares how she responded to asymmetry in a white male teachers response to her by repositioning through asking for an explanation for her teachers actions; the incident escalated to a place where she was penalized harshly. Karina had similar experiences. She explained, But in the past, Ive gotten into trouble, just for standing up for (others), uh, when it didnt seem fair . . . uh, Ive gotten in trouble, like, seven out of 10 times. Karina clearly articulated how she stood up for herself and others when she perceived the teacher was being unfair. Importantly, Karinas response illustrates how some disciplinary actions were in response to the reactions of Girls of Color who witnessed or experienced being treated unfairly. Not recognizing this effort toward trying to achieve justice for themselves or others that Girls of Color were putting forward, school staff may be reproducing perceptions around a lack of innocence that keeps Girls of Color trapped in cycles that perpetuate disciplinary inequities (Epstein et al., 2017).

Our findings illuminate the ways in which teachers withheld academic support from Girls of Color by ignoring their requests and responding unpleasantly when queried for help, despite the girls engaging appropriately in their academics. Teachers also withheld educational support by denying Girls of Color positive reinforcement for their academic achievements. Girls of Color also described how their teachers applied behavioral supports problematically through biased and asymmetrical responses. Finally, Girls of Color also explained how teachers overlooked and underutilized behavioral supports that were meant to support students in redirecting their behavior in positive ways. Teachers inequitable academic and behavioral support applications often resulted in material consequences for the participants. Ultimately, we found that these were all debilitating teacher patterns because they not only limited girls access to high-quality learning environments, but also made girls feel unwanted and disconnected from schools. Considering these debilitating teacher patterns, Girls of Color repositioned themselves in response to marginalization. Girls of Color were intentional in how they took up different approaches to repositioning to maintain and defend the integrity of themselves and their peers.


Exploring the narratives of Girls of Color illustrated how discipline disparities were animated by inequitable academic and behavioral responses of teachers to classroom interactions. DisCrit supported conceptualizing these responses as debilitating practices or as problematic academic and behavioral interactions that foreclose access to education opportunities and outcomes. We drew from Puar (2017), who used the term debilitating because it foregrounds the slow wearing down of populations (p. xiv). The teacher interactions we identified disrupted engagement, meaningful learning, and safety and security for Girls of Color. These teacher responses of withholding academic and behavioral support revealed a pattern of debilitating for Girls of Color and a simultaneous process of enablement for their white peers that propelled disciplinary inequities in schools for Girls of Color.

In the case of our participants, the legacy of white supremacy and whiteness, and ability as property played out in educational contexts through the work of schools that debilitate and enable particular children. When examining discipline disparities, we uncovered how the hyperfocus of praising the academic achievement of white students influenced withholding opportunities to learn from Girls of Color, granting white students the label of smartness (Leonardo & Broderick, 2011). Teachers enabled white students by granting them more leeway and freedom; their behaviors and achievement were rewarded even when they did not meet behavioral expectations. Further, studying disciplinary disparities revealed how consequences for (alleged) behaviors were applied unevenly, constraining opportunities for Girls of Color to adjust their (alleged) behaviors with warnings, granting white students the label of goodness (Broderick & Leonardo, 2016). Consequently, when Girls of Color identified debilitating practices, they indicated how removing opportunities for Girls of Color did not occur in isolation. Instead, debilitating processes for Girls of Color were accompanied by enabling their white peers (Broderick & Leonardo, 2016). Said differently, the acts and responses of debilitation granted cultural privilege to some by denying it to others. Granting favor to some, or enabling, used a lens of power to imagine smartness and goodness as attributes that were intrinsic to the student, not earned.

What our findings illustrate is how ability is not something static in a classroom, inherent to the children within. Ability is a property right that is withheld and distributed across students based on a priori assumptions and teacher interactions (Annamma, 2015). Girls of Color were not assumed to be behaving appropriately, even when they were doing so; their ability to behave was always in question. This illustrates how ableism impacts Girls of Color uniquely. They repeatedly described ability being withhelddespite meeting academic and behavioral expectations, they were not positioned as worthy of engaging or rewarding in classes. Consequently, Girls of Color felt that their participation and commitments in class were not acknowledged or welcomed in class, which shut down feelings of connectedness and worthiness to participate in the classroom. This led some Girls of Color to act out, some to withdraw, and some to insist that they be acknowledged. In a myriad of ways, these problematic interactions wore down Girls of Color because they had to spend their energy responding to problematic teacher interactions. This is the process of debilitation in classrooms: the slow wearing down of girls of color who are doing the most they can to reposition themselves but being ground through the gears of an education system bent on positioning them as unable to learn and behave. Therefore, we can directly connect how these classroom interactions animated academic and disciplinary disparities. These debilitating practices foreclosed positive educational opportunities and outcomes for Girls of Color.

Our participants described these school experiences and gave concrete examples of how school personnel did not apply the prevailing ideas of intelligence and normalcy to them. Yet girls did not simply accept these debilitating practices without resistance. Within their school communities with school staff and/or peers, the resistance of Girls of Color engaged repositioning as ways of maintaining and defending their integrity when they were treated unfairly in disciplinary and academic practices. These acts of resistance were strategic on the part of Girls of Color, filled with savvy and ingenuity in response to the interpersonal violence experienced at school (Annamma, 2018a).


This study fills an important gap in research on discipline disparities by examining the experiences and understandings of discipline of Girls of Color. This research also has limitations, which indicate future lines of inquiry. Much of the discipline disparity work has taken place in urban schools, which is essential because discipline rates tend to be high and exclusionary discipline overly relied on those spaces (Losen & Skiba, 2010). Yet high-resourced Midwestern schools have also been shown to have racial discipline disparities (Rausch & Skiba, 2004). Our study adds to that literature specifically for Girls of Color. Future research needs to be replicated in urban, suburban, and rural schools to determine if the same debilitating processes are found in different geographic regions for Girls of Color. Including teacher and administrator voice as well as classroom observations would better contextualize these results to determine how school personnel are imagining classroom interactions with and disciplinary disparities of Girls of Color.

The implications from these results are numerous. In this section, we focus on two major implications, specifically because they are within the control of school personnel: (a) academically, educators must reflect on how ability is distributed and withheld in the classroom along racialized and gendered lines, and (b) behaviorally, positive behavior supports should be imagined and implemented through a race- and gender-conscious lens. Each of these things should also be integrated into the curriculum of schools of education and teacher education programs, but educators do not have to wait for universities to catch up to begin these processes within their own school communities.

When exploring discipline disparities for Girls of Color, we found that educators foregrounded girls positioning as less-than, which addresses how the legacy of historical beliefs about race and ability, which were clearly based on white supremacy, have become intertwined in complex ways that carry into the present day (Annamma et al., 2013, p. 2). This legacy of beliefs about ability and worthiness carried into the present day animates discipline disparities. While some read these results as disheartening, because ableism and racism infuse all classroom interactions, we find potential for change.

Our results indicated that Girls of Color were consistently discouraged from interacting in classrooms even when they were meeting academic expectations. These results are consistent with prior statistical analyses that found that discipline disparities begin in classrooms (Anyon et al., 2014). We uncovered the specific debilitating practices that animate these disparitiesteacher interactions with Girls of Color that ignore their efforts, adversely respond to their requests, and deny them rewards. These debilitating processes meant that academically, Girls of Color had limited access to education opportunities. To counter this, educators must reflect on how ability is distributed and withheld in the classroom along racialized and gendered lines. Reflective questions include: (1) Who am I responding to in the classroom? (2) Conversely, who is being ignored? (3) How often am I calling on Girls of Color? (4) How often do I adversely respond to students generally, and Girls of Color specifically, in the classroom? Why? (4) Who am I rewarding for meeting academic expectations? and (5) How often am I rewarding Girls of Color for meeting academic expectations? These questions examine general patterns and look specifically at classroom interactions with Girls of Color. To support this reflection, we encourage educators to regularly track data of classroom interactions. This may be as simple as using a roster to note whom they respond to and how, recruiting another teacher to do observations, or recording themselves teaching and reflecting. Further, educators can work with others in their building who are interested in reducing discipline disparities in their own classrooms.

Behaviorally, teachers responded to Girls of Color using asymmetrical responses wherein consequences did not fit the behavior, applying supports in racialized and unfair ways, and overlooking supports that could be used instead of jumping to punitive consequences. Positive behavior supports have been found to reduce rates of disciplinary actions but have not been found to significantly reduce racial discipline disparities (Carter et al., 2017). The results from this study provide a reason for why racial discipline disparities continue despite the implementation of positive behavior supports when they are applied in race-neutral ways. When race is ignored, racial inequities continue to flourish (Milner, 2013). For Girls of Color, disparities are further impacted by racial and gender expectations that are centered on white girls (Nanda, 2012). Because of our finding that positive behavioral supports are distributed and withheld inequitably, positive behavior supports cannot continue to be imagined or implemented in color-evasive ways, ones in which the issue of race is ignored or denied (Annamma et al., 2017). To counter this issue, if educators are going to use positive behavior supports, positive behavior support training and implementation must take into account issues of race and gender disparities. Educators must understand how race and gender have been continuing factors in discipline and how expectations built around white girls situate Girls of Color as inherently problematic. Similar reflective questions about behavior should be considered in the application of positive behavior supports in the classroom: (1) Who is involved in the behavior? What is the race and gender of the student? (2) Have I investigated the social context of the behaviors of students I have targeted? Have I listened to all students? If a Girl of Color was involved, have I listened to her? (3) Have I followed the steps of positive behavior supports? (4) Is the consequence that I have implemented aligned with the infraction? and (5) What patterns of response am I engaging in regarding Girls of Color?

We find it important to note that we do not encourage teachers to ask questions such as, Am I racist? We do not find these questions productive in that they are yes or no questions that leave little space for reflection and change. Moreover, we have been trained to discount racialized interactions, so the answer will almost always be no (Gotanda, 1991). Implicit bias literature suggests that we can enact biases without being aware (Jolls & Sunstein, 2006). Instead, we are focusing on raising educators critical consciousness (King, 2004) so that they might understand how discipline disparities for Girls of Color are animated in classroom interactions and focus on what they can shift in their own practices to make discipline more equitable. We also encourage to educators to move away from teaching for obedience and move toward building a DisCrit Solidarity with Girls of Color, a relational approach recognizing that the myriad of oppressions students face means they have gifts that educators do not (Annamma & Morrison, 2018). Though we focus on classroom interactions, we also understand that public schools, schools of education, and society all have a role to play in dismantling the schoolprison nexus. However, classroom interactions continue to be identified as the source of disciplinary disparities in both quantitative and qualitative studies. Consequently, teachers have an opportunity to change their classroom practices to academically and behaviorally support Girls of Color.



The authors chose to capitalize Girls of Color or variations of the terms in line with Ross who argues it is a solidarity term. We drew from Crenshaw (1991), when we chose not to capitalize Black while leaving white not capitalized.


We want to explicitly note that we do not feel the need to include white girls or Boys of Color in our sample. This is because by doing so, we run the risk of centering white femininity or Black and Brown maleness, reinforcing that Girls of Color are not worthy of being centered in studies about school inequity (Helms & Merish, 2013).


We want to state explicitly that our goal is not to collapse all racial groups of girls within the umbrella term Girls of Color. For instance, we recognize that Black girls face unique disciplinary contexts within white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and misogynoir. However, given that this school district is more than 65% white, limiting to one racial group for girls reduced our target population significantly. Also within the context of this school district, girls from multiple racial groups reported incidents of racial discrimination at the time. Finally, the themes that we present in this article were found across the racial groups of girls. In future work, we will focus on the nuances of specific racial groups within the participant sample.


See Annamma (2017, 2018b) for larger discussion on the methods of Education Journey Maps and Cartographers Clinic


We do not cite these data because they would reveal the specific city and limit possible anonymity of our participants.


Given the limited space, we highlighted debilitating teacher patterns because they were the most consistently named source of disciplinary disparities for Girls of Color. This is not to blame teachers; instead, we believe that by elucidating how teachers perpetuate discipline disparities through classroom interactions, we can also highlight what educators themselves can change.


All names of students and teachers used in this manuscript are pseudonyms.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 5, 2020, p. 1-46
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  • Subini Annamma
    Stanford University
    SUBINI ANCY ANNAMMA, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Stanford University. Her research critically examines the mutually constitutive nature of racism and ableism, how they interlock with other marginalizing oppressions, and how these intersections impact education in urban schools and youth prisons. Dr. Annamma is a past Ford Postdoctoral Fellow, Critical Race Studies in Education Associate Emerging Scholar recipient, and AERA Division G Early Career Awardee. Her recent writing appears in Theory Into Practice, Review of Research in Education, and Teaching and Teacher Education. Dr. Annamma’s book, The Pedagogy of Pathologization: Dis/abled Girls of Color in the School-Prison Nexus (Routledge, 2018), focuses on the education trajectories of incarcerated disabled girls of color and has won the AESA Critic’s Choice Award and the NWSA Alison Piepmeier Book Prize.
  • Tamara Handy
    University of Kelania Sri Lanka
    E-mail Author
    TAMARA HANDY, Ph.D., is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Disability Studies, Ragama Medical Faculty, University of Kelania Sri Lanka. Her research interests include inclusive education and education in war-affected countries. Her recent writing appears in Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal and Curriculum Inquiry.
  • Amanda Miller
    SUNY Cortland
    E-mail Author
    AMANDA L. MILLER, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Foundations and Social Advocacy Department at SUNY Cortland. Her scholarship focuses on how schooling mechanisms produce or disrupt academic and social opportunities for girls of color with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She also studies teacher preparation for culturally sustaining inclusive education and family–school–community partnerships with and for families from diverse backgrounds. Her recent writing appears in Race Ethnicity and Education and Inclusion.
  • Elizabeth Jackson
    University of Kansas
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    ELIZABETH JACKSON is a doctoral candidate in special education at the University of Kansas. Her research focuses on the relationships between disability, race, gender, and mechanisms in school that propel and disrupt student entry to domestic minor sex trafficking. Her dissertation examines the ways that school special education staff may contribute to its disruption.
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