The School-To-Prison Pipeline Is Stealing Florida’s Black Girls

Pace provides girls and young women an opportunity for a better future through education, counseling, training and advocacy. (Courtesy of Pace Center for Girls)

Though the social media hashtags and corporate branding for Black History Month may have ended, Black girls in Florida continue to be criminalized by harmful policies, and ultimately left behind. Despite Florida Black girls making up only 21 percent of the state’s female population ages 10–17, they account for 45 percent of all girls arrested, according to a recent study from the Delores Weaver Foundation. Moreover, 36 percent of Black girls in Florida’s middle and high schools don’t feel safe at school. 

The Weaver report made recommendations on three immediate actions that should be taken to counteract the disproportionate harm Black girls experience:

  • Pass public policies that improve well-being and address the disparity in justice system entry points. 
  • Use community data specific to the experiences of Black girls to inform local decisions. 
  • Identify and implement best practices and solutions that other states and jurisdictions are using to reduce systemic disparities for Black girls. 

Pace Center for Girls, based in Jacksonville, Fla., envisions a better, more equitable future for the Sunshine State’s young women, especially its Black girls. With year-round programming, the center offers case management help, counseling and life skill development courses, in addition to middle and high school academics. 

Ms. sat down with CEO Mary Marx to discuss Pace’s work, impact and goals. 

Ramona Flores: Why are there a disproportionate number of Black girls entering the justice system in Florida? Is this a national problem or is Florida seeing an uncommon trend? 

Mary Marx: There are a variety of contributing factors, including experiencing family instability, poverty, disconnection from the education system, and physical and sexual trauma. Other factors are, of course, systemic racism, discrimination and economic inequality. All of these things combined place a really heavy burden on kids of color, and particularly Black girls. 

These are all things that are creating and contributing the push into what is known as the school- to-prison pipeline. In schools, Black girls are being disportionately expelled, suspended, and arrested as a result of unfair and subjective policies. These policies aren’t only inequitable—they’re also zero tolerance. 

All of these factors result in a disproportionate push out of school, which results in free, unsupervised time, which can then lead to substance abuse and mental health issues, which eventually devolves into victimization and criminalization. 

The data speaks for itself, Black girls are six times more likely to be expelled, three times more likely to be suspended, and four times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. 

It’s a whole system failure. The education and the justice systems are two systems in which inequality is being perpetuated. Black girls are also more likely to be victims of violence when compared to other segments of the population. They are three times more likely to be victims of child abuse or neglect, and five times more likely to be victims of homocide. If you include human trafficking on top of all of that, you find that 40% of human trafficking victims are Black girls. 

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t unique to Florida, the data across the country is pretty consistent. There was a 2017 Georgetown study that found that Black girls are seen by adults as less innocent than white girls of the same age. They were also viewed as less nurturing, less protective, and less likely to require comfort and support. There’s an adultification and hyper-sexualization of Black girls that is also contributing to their unequal treatment. 

Pace’s population also shows this dipropionate need. With Pace’s programming serving over 3,000 girls in 2021, 41% of those girls were Black and 37% were white, but 54% of the Black girls we worked with had a prior arrest while only 27% of white girls had a prior arrest before coming to Pace. You can see the disproportionate contact with the legal system right there. 

Family instability, poverty, disconnection from the education system, physical and sexual trauma, systemic racism, discrimination and economic inequality—all of these things combined place a really heavy burden on kids of color, and particularly Black girls. 

Flores: What is Pace Center for Girls’ mission statement, and how has that mission been received by officials and the community? 

Marx: Pace’s mission statement is to provide girls and young women an opportunity for a better future through education, counseling, training and advocacy. But the vision statement is a world where all girls and young women have power in a just and equitable society. 

When you look at the word equity, it means each person gets what they need to be successful, and that’s the vision we have here at Pace. We believe all young girls deserve an opportunity to not only find their voice, which is so critical to having power, but also the opportunity to achieve their potential. When they have the opportunity and ability to succeed in school, they also have the opportunity to be successful in their communities. Remember, this is the next generation of mothers, the next generation of employees in the workforce, and the next generation of community leaders. 

And when they can break these cycles of poverty and violence that are generational, then everyone benefits and we will have a more just and equitable society.

Flores: How has the Pace Center affected policy in Florida? 

Mary Marx: In 2018, a team of girls from the Girls’ Coordinating Council (GCC), a coalition made up of Pace girls and entities that girls may interact with—the school system, Department of Juvenile Justice, Department of Health, Department of Labor, etc.—tackled Broward County’s rate of detaining girls for failing to appear at their court hearings.

Education is also an important part of creating meaningful change. We found that many girls were driven deeper into the system because they didn’t fully understand the consequences of being arrested. Even if they make it to their first court date, if they get a second one, they could lose the paper with that information, or have unreliable transportation, or another external factor that kept them from appearing. 

To combat this, the girls from GCC created an animated video to explain what happened and what to expect, which we then ran as a PSA. They answered those questions, what phone numbers to call if you can’t show up in court, what are the bus schedules and other transportations to get there. They also decided against producing a pamphlet, in favor of something digital that kids could keep on their phones, which was translated into three languages. 

It was brilliant, and the following year, the failure to appear rate dropped by 27 percent. 

When they can break these cycles of poverty and violence that are generational, then everyone benefits and we will have a more just and equitable society.

Flores: How do trauma-informed approaches affect this work? 

Marx: Trauma impacts girls’ thinking, their behavior, and their physical and emotional health. It places them at a significant risk for poor life outcomes, including delinquency or dependency systems and economic dependency. 

When Pace first started in 1985, there wasn’t research on girls in delinquency, but now there is a significant body of research that focuses on what works with girls. That research has led to the three foundational pillars of our model, it focuses on what works with girls which is a gender responsive, strength-based and trauma-informed approach. 

It requires trust, safety and the creation of an environment that is physically and emotionally safe. You have to take a holistic approach when developing a treatment plan, rather than a medical or reductionist model approach, because you’re looking at the whole person. It’s important to establish meaningful connections between the girls and the staff, as well as the girls amongst each other, and facilitate those healthy relationships and development. 

Flores: How can people directly support young Black girls’ education, autonomy, and fair and equitable treatment, both locally and nationally? 

Marx: That’s a good question, because it can be so complicated.

First, educate yourself on the issues. What are the systemic issues, what are the policy and practice issues? Then, serve on the PTO, create those authentic relationships between parents, school personnel, and the students. Advocating for education is so critical, and a big part of empowerment. 

I don’t believe that our systems are set up for empowerment. So serve on juvenile justice circuit boards, serve on human trafficking task forces. 

Not everyone can do all of that, because it takes a lot of time and dedication, but there are lots of state and national organizations you can volunteer with, or donate to. Advocacy is so important because so much of this work is about shifting policy and practice. Everything from looking at schools’ zero tolerance policies, to changing behavior models to center restorative justice. 

You can get involved with and support Pace Center for Girls here

Up next:


Ramona Flores is an editorial fellow with Ms. and is completing her undergraduate studies at Smith College, with a double major in government and the study of women and gender. Her academic focuses include Marxist feminism, transnational collective organizing and queer history. Her writing covers internet subcultures, reproductive care advocacy and queer theory. She hails from Austin, Texas.