When Sasha was in high school, she was raped. Two years later, she had dropped out of high school and was arrested on petty theft charges.
According to a recent report entitled “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” Sasha’s experience at school in the assault’s aftermath was the catalyst for these consequences. Rather than provide her support, her classmates ridiculed her, and school became a constant reminder of the assault. Sasha immediately stopped attending, and her school provided no assistance as she attempted to transfer schools. When her mother began homeschooling her, the school district went so far as to threaten to contact child services for keeping Sasha out of school.
Sasha received no trauma-related services through her school or otherwise, and cites this ongoing trauma and fear as her reason for refusing to attend school. Her education ultimately took a back seat to these mental health concerns, and she dropped out of school and entered the juvenile justice system.
“The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline” report makes it clear that Sasha’s experience is far from anomalous. The report summarizes research conducted by the Human Rights Project for Girls, The Center on Poverty and Inequality, and The Ms. Foundation for Women, and illustrates the enduring cycle of victimization that still plagues incarcerated girls in the U.S.
Its main findings are two-fold. First, “the proportion of girls–especially girls of color in the juvenile justice system is increasing.” This holds true despite the fact that girls’ crime rates have not experienced the same jump in recent decades. Studies on this are still in preliminary stages, but the report attributes this increase to “more aggressive enforcement of non-serious offenses that are rooted in the experience of abuse and trauma.” These offenses include misdemeanors, status offenses, outstanding warrants, technical violations, and truancy.
Second, girls in the juvenile justice system are far more likely to have been victims of sexual violence. In fact, this is likely due to the fact that their brushes with the law are tied directly to their reaction to the trauma of assault. Furthermore, “the decision to arrest and detain girls…has been shown often to be based in part on the perception of girls’ having violated conventional norms and stereotypes of feminine behavior, even when that behavior is caused by trauma.”
Essentially, the United States justice system functions in a way that imprisons the victims. Girls under legal age experience sexual assault at a higher rate than any other group, and this report suggests that their victimization continues long after the assault is over. In a nationwide study of justice-involved girls, 32% had been sexually maltreated, 39% had been sexually assaulted or raped, 40% had been physically abused, and 56% had been domestically abused. This results in a “sexual assault to prison pipeline” that is difficult to escape, as pictured below:
This victimization is compounded as too many girls like Sasha find the school environment unsafe or unwelcoming in the aftermath of sexual assault. Schools regularly fail to support these students, prompting disengagement, truancy, and challenging behaviors, which are often met with suspension, expulsion or contacting law enforcement. Because of this lack of support, these girls end up compromising their education, missing out on what is perhaps their best tool for escaping the pipeline.
“There is a common, dangerous trope that our girls are okay,” says Malika Saada Saar, Executive Director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, in an email to The Chronicle. “They are not…It is time for our schools to recognize, and respond to, the sexual abuse to prison pipeline and to rethink the ways in which girls are silenced, diminished or pushed out of schools.”
A brief by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network further explains the impact of this trauma and subsequent discipline on girls’ identities: “Youth who have experienced chronic trauma do not believe that the adults around them can or will protect them, and sometimes they are right. What is interpreted as delinquent behavior or pointless acting out is often their attempt to assume the burden of taking care of themselves.”
The report outlines several policy proposals for remedying this lack of trust and support. First, schools need to be examined closely for the way they handle sexual violence both on campus and in their students’ homes. The report says girls’ rates of sexual violence within schools need to be studied as well, in order to best allocate victim support services.
Second, it suggests that schools need to take a more nuanced approach to disciplining the victims of sexual violence. Many violations can be connected directly to a history of sexual victimization, and the simple recognition of this fact could provide invaluable support for the girls in the process of recovery; schools need to be prepared to train staff to recognize and respond to this reactive behavior.
According to the Illinois State Board of Education Ensuring Success in School Task Force, “When there is a relationship between the survivor’s behavior and the survivor’s experience of violence–for example, when students engage in acts of self-defense–schools need to be flexible and modify punishment appropriately.”
“The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline” makes it clear that these are not case-by-case concerns; rather, they are representative of a society-wide tendency to criminalize girls for their sexual victimization. When their schools allow them to be ridiculed, ignored or even truant, they send the message that girls’ mental well-being and educational success are not priorities. Through this cycle, girls are given few opportunities to redefine their own place in their communities; one instance of sexual violence can upend their lives entirely.