Daje was first suspended in kindergarten after accidentally spelling a curse word. From then on she felt labeled as a “bad kid,” culminating in her expulsion from her public high school for fighting. Her struggles in For Ahkeem are not uncommon.
Driven by the rise of zero-tolerance policies, children—disproportionately minorities—have been pushed for decades in ever-larger numbers out of school settings and toward the criminal justice system, a phenomenon known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” According to the report “Breaking Schools’ Rules,” use of out-of-school suspensions almost doubled between 1974 and 2006. These harsh disciplinary policies reveal a racial divide; according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, Black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled.
Such suspensions drastically increase the likelihood of future incarceration, with studies from the U.S. Department of Education finding that school dropouts are eight times more likely to wind up in prison. The United States now incarcerates youth at the highest rate of any industrialized nation, with 130,000 juveniles locked away every year. According to a study by the National Women’s Law Center and the National Crittenton Foundation, young Black girls like Daje are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system today.