Volunteers work with young girls during a Black Girls Code workshop.
Black Girls Code

Editor’s note: Once a month, this column will tackle broader questions about what the country should do about gaps in achievement and opportunity.

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Tucked away from the hoopla and ruckus of the Democratic National Convention at a quaint restaurant a few miles away, approximately 200 people gathered at a fundraiser for Rights4Girls to rally around issues ostensibly washed out in the convention hall.

Instead of red, white and blue streamers, the room was festooned with art and info graphics, which described the state of girls and women in the United States. A picture inspired by a 12-year-old girl who was trafficked for sex in California was put up for auction. A poster read, “Girls are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system.”

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“One of the priorities that we would add to a platform for marginalized young women and girls is to dismantle the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline that's criminalizing our girls, in particular our girls of color, for being victims of sexual abuse,” said Yasmin Vafa, executive director of Rights4Girls.

The event did more than simply highlight injustices suffered by school-age girls; it launched a new campaign that illustrates how school reform often ends up making those injustices worse. Our society is so weighted by the gravity of sexism that our laws, “solutions” and “reforms” contribute to the victimization of those we are supposed to protect.

During the event, Vafa and honored guests spoke to the criminalization of victims of child sex trafficking in the United States. Speakers made clear that there should be no difference between abusing a child and paying to abuse a child through prostitution. In many states, trafficked children aren’t always protected by statutory rape laws. There is no such thing as a child prostitute; it’s rape.

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“When we fail to recognize there is no difference between these two acts, we’re actually protecting abusers. We are shielding the men who abuse these children and who essentially pay to rape these children,” Vafa added.

The topic of child sex trafficking, and sexism in general, is not one that education reformers pay much attention to, but they must start if we’re really going to uplift communities of color. Are governance changes through charter schools protecting girls and women? Are curricula teaching boys not to shame women? Are discipline practices further victimizing marginalized students, including young women who have suffered abuse? Rigidly focusing on “gap closing” misses underlying causes and immediate threats of sexism, sexual abuse and poverty that many young girls of color face, and how those factors affect their education and prospects.

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Rights4Girls awarded three champions working to end sex trafficking and gender-based violence: Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.); Leah Daughtry, CEO of the 2016 DNC Committee; and Wake Forest University professor Melissa Harris-Perry received crystal plaques of appreciation. Their collective work on youth sex trafficking provides examples of a local, national and educational strategy to end state-sanctioned sexism, a systemic atrocity that injures and kills girls and women in multiple ways. Judge Lori Dumas of Pennsylvania’s 1st Judicial District, activist Michael Skolnik and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney also spoke about their commitment to ending sex trafficking.

Rights4Girls staff with all special guests. From left to right: R4G Staff Attorney Maheen Kaleem, Dr. Ellen Jo Waller of the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church of Philadelphia, Melissa Harris Perry, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, Judge Lori Dumas, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, and R4G Exec Director Yasmin Vafa
Lucas Farrar

According to "Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected" (pdf), a report from the African American Policy Forum, black and Latina girls who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school and face the juvenile-justice system. The Rights4Girls website reports that 66 percent of incarcerated girls are girls of color, even though they make up only 22 percent of the general youth population. Seventy-three percent of girls in the juvenile-justice system report histories of physical and sexual abuse, and 40 percent are LGBTQ youths.

Changing laws and policies around prostitution and expulsion is only one step toward changing the systems of oppression that really generate the disparities, just as helping students of color score higher on standardized tests isn’t sufficient to overturn the systems of oppression that keep them from reaching their potential. In an era in which “disruption” and deconstruction of school districts are seen as victories, we seldom see replacements for the former arrangements that take on patriarchy and white supremacy.

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The speakers at Rights4Girls reinforced the notion that dismantling systems of patriarchy requires changing laws like those around prostitution, but it also demands the promotion of healthy forms of masculinity. Likewise, ending harsh disciplinary school practices, inequitable funding structures and racist curricula requires that we replace them with positive models. Protecting girls also requires unlearning how we insidiously shame and abuse girls and women, including in schools, and it requires an education-reform strategy that is fundamentally different from what is offered currently.

If education reform isn’t specifically trying to replace systems of patriarchy and white supremacy, what exactly are we doing?

At the culminating speech of the DNC, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said, “So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women who face the effects of systemic racism and are made to feel like their lives are disposable.”

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Rights4Girls’ explicit efforts to replace patriarchy should be copied in education. It’s become clear that “gap closing” isn’t a substantive goal. From New Orleans to Newark, N.J., we’ve learned that there are too many nefarious ways to close an achievement gap. We’ve removed worker protections and fired female teachers in the name of closing gender gaps in employment. We expel girls and boys of color, writing them off as unavoidable casualties in the battle to close the achievement gap. And we’ve funded and empowered white, paternalistic organizations to implement these approaches.

Addressing the root causes of racism and, just as important, sexism requires upending something far more fundamental than school autonomy and test-based accountability.

It’s time we stopped thinking that moving furniture in the same chauvinistic living room is the same as extracting its sexist foundation. Rights4Girls’ example teaches us that education reform can be more a tool of patriarchy and racism than a solution. We have to do more than put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women. We must hold ourselves accountable for ending patriarchy and systemic racism.

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This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in a partnership with The Root.