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A nudge to workplace investigators: Be aware of “Adultification” Bias

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I was not shocked when I read a recent newspaper article that said, “Black student allegedly locked in a room at an elementary school.” For those reading this blog, you are probably wondering why. Simple answer: this was not the first time I heard about such a concerning story. In the last 10 years, I have read too many disheartening reports of young Black students being severely punished at school to the point where they were treated as if they are adults.

I have not personally experienced such punishment, but the newspaper article hit close to home. When I look back at my experience as a young Black student in elementary school, I often wonder how often I was either overly reprimanded or punished as an “adult” for being just a kid.  On reflection, I have come to realize that I too was treated this way.

Growing up as one of the only Black kids in a predominately White elementary and high school, I knew I had to be on my best behaviour and work 110% harder than my non-Black peers. Despite my efforts, I found that any small mistake I made was overly scrutinized. I felt that I was put under a microscope by my teachers. Here is an example: In grade 7, I jokingly called my grade 7 teacher a “sucker” because, hey, I was a kid. My punishment?  The teacher reprimanded and prohibited me from attending our school dance. I thought it was a weird punishment, as my other peers had a joking-around type of relationship with that same teacher. My peers used to call this teacher “Special K,” but they never experienced this kind of reprimand. Another time, this same teacher went into my desk and confiscated notes I passed to my friends during the day because, hey, I had crushes. I recalled my mom receiving an afterschool phone call from this teacher about my notes. My mom found it weird that the teacher complained about my notes even though my peers wrote and passed notes in class too. I can go on and on about this particular teacher, but what was important to note was that I knew that race was a factor in how he treated me. But at that age, I could not find the right words to determine what exactly this teacher was doing. Yes, this teacher was singling me out. And, of course, it was discrimination. But it was a specific type of discrimination. Fast forward to today, and what I and other Black students experience in schools is what is known as “adultification bias.”

In this blog, I aim to create awareness and assist workplace investigators in understanding adultification bias and how it manifests in schools. I hope this will be helpful when conducting investigations into race-based discrimination complaints from Black students.

What is adultification bias?

Adultification bias refers to the racial bias where children of racialized groups, typically Black children, are treated by adults as being more mature than they actually are. Scholars who have researched adultification bias have suggested that actions committed by racialized children that would be deemed normal for child development are more likely to be treated as opportunities for discipline. Additionally, these racialized children are more likely to be seen as having more malicious intentions. 1 2 In other words, adultification bias is a form of anti-Black racism, as Black children are perceived as older and less innocent than their non-racialized peers.

As I was doing research in preparation for this blog, I found few articles talked about the history of adultification bias. However, Rebecca Epstein, Jamila Blake, and Thalia Gonzalez, from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, have argued that adultification bias is rooted in slavery, negative stereotypes of Black folks, earlier physical development and the hypersexualization of Black people.3 They stated that at the beginning of slavery, Black boys and girls were imagined as chattel and were often put to work as young as two and three years old.4 Subjected to much of the same dehumanization suffered by Black adults, Black children were rarely perceived as being worth of playtime and were severely punished for exhibiting normal child like-behaviours.5 Fast forward to the 21st century and that same perception of Black children that once existed during slavery continues to prevail today.

How adultification bias manifests in schools:  

To understand how adultification bias manifests in schools, I have provided some facts from North American scholars and excerpts from a Canadian study on adultification bias, conducted by Stella Igweamaka and Nana Appah, to highlight the types of adultification bias Black students experience in schools.

 Facts about Adultification Bias in Schools:

    • Several North American studies show that Black children have been considered significantly less innocent than children in every age group starting at age 5. 6
    • Black students in an Ontario school board make up 10.2% of the student population, yet account for 22.5% of suspensions. 7
    • Studies have shown that Black children are much more likely to be suspended from school and receive harsher punishments than their non-Black peers for the same infractions.8 For example, between 2013 and 2019, an Ontario school board recorded 52 suspensions at the junior kindergarten level and 103 at the senior kindergarten level. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (“OHRC”) noted that in this particular school board, Black students over-presented in suspension and expulsion statistics for students of all ages. 9
    • In an Ontario School board, there were statistics that show that Black students were streamlined into non-academic courses — meant for students seeking to go to college instead of university — regardless of academic performance, and they were subjected to more stringent behaviour standards than their non-racialized counterparts.10

Excerpts from Stella Igweamaka’s and Nana Appah’s study11:

    1. “I once wore leggings to school and my teachers called me aside that it was inappropriate dressing. Meanwhile, all of my white friends always wear leggings and they have never called them aside. Mentally, it doesn’t feel right to be treated differently. I am of the same age as my peers. I find it very unfair.”
      – Black girl, 14 years old.
    1. When I was younger, adults frequently treated me as if I knew more than I actually did. My white friend was crying in the corner because she got in trouble, and because I wasn’t crying with her, they assumed I was just more mature, but that wasn’t the case. I simply did not cry because there was no point in crying if I did nothing. Just because I wasn’t crying didn’t mean I was tough or had the mindset of an adult.”
      – Black girl, 13 years old.
    1. “I feel like I have to look really happy, like I am not angry or sad – not just in school, but any place outside. If I am sad about something, I try not to look it so people don’t make assumptions or assume how I am feeling. People usually think that Black people are angry, or they just want to start something. I want to seem just more approachable. So, I just try and do that.”
      – Black girl, 13 years old

Case Law

There have been many cases of adultification bias that have occurred in the United States. For example, In May 2020, Michigan judge Mary Ellen Brenan made headlines when journalists revealed that she detained a 15-year-old Black girl, referred to as “Grace,” for not completing her online homework.12 Grace was part of the 25% of public-school students across the U.S. who had failed to complete their online homework. The question that journalists wondered was why “Grace” faced such extreme and unmerited consequences.  While this story is disappointing to hear, I can’t say that the examples in the Canadian context are any better.

For example, in March 2019, a newspaper reported that a lunchroom supervisor put a five-year-old Black kindergartner in a school storage closet for “misbehaving.” 13 On November 29, 2021, a principal of an Ontario school called officers about a four-year-old Black student who was said to be in “crisis.”14 It was reported by the parents that their child was just “too active,” rather than in crisis.

The most recent case reported occurred in January 2023, when three staff members were under investigation after students at a school alleged that a six-year-old Black student was separated from their peers and locked in a closet-sized room for 30 minutes by a staff member. 15 Newspaper articles also reported that the staff member forced the child to sit “‘alone in the corner’ at a desk covered in scribbled unpleasant words.” 16 On May 8, 2023, the police concluded that there was no evidence suggesting that staff allegedly forcibly confined a six-year-old Black student in a closet-sized room.17 However, it is reported that the matter is still ongoing.

Despite the issues of adultification being prevalent within schools, recent case law suggests that human rights bodies are addressing this issue. In the 2020 Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (“the Tribunal”) case, JKB v. Regional Municipality of Peel Police Services Board, 2020 HRTO 1040 (CanLII), two White police officers restrained a six-year-old Black student by handcuffing her wrists behind her back and holding her, with her ankles also cuffed, on her stomach for a prolonged period of time. The Tribunal ruled that race was a factor in the incident.

What should be highlighted is that the adjudicator factored in adultification bias as one of the impacts on the child when deciding monetary compensation. Specifically, the Tribunal member stated:

From an objective perspective, the actions which constituted the breach of the applicant’s [Ontario Human Rights] Code rights in this case were very serious, involving as they did the use of police authority in restraining a six-year-old child by handcuffing her wrists behind her back and holding her, with her ankles also cuffed, on her stomach for a prolonged period of time. These actions can be expected to have an impact on the applicant’s dignity, feelings, and self-respect. I agree with the applicant that the quantum of compensation in this case should not be set so low that it “would trivialize the social importance of the Code by effectively creating a ‘license fee’ to discriminate” — in this case, by creating a ‘license fee’ for police to treat Black children experiencing behavioural dysregulation more harshly than they would treat white children in the same circumstances. At the same time, the quantum of compensation should not be so high as to amount to a penalty or punishment of the respondent.18

Ultimately, the adjudicator rewarded the litigation guardian (i.e., the child’s mother) with $30,000.00 in compensation.

Key takeaways for workplace investigators:

While there is limited quantitative research to further assess the existence of adultification bias experienced by Black students, there are some takeaways for workplace investigators to keep in mind when handling these types of race-based discrimination complaints from Black students.

Workplace investigators should:

    1. Acknowledge and recognize adultification bias as a specific and critical type of discrimination. The facts, excerpts, and cases provided above in this blog illustrate this type of discrimination, but they are not an exhaustive list of examples.
    2. When investigating allegations that involve these types of differential treatment of Black students, it is essential to examine how the elements of adultification bias might have manifested in the alleged behaviour.
    3. Investigators should be alive to any punishment meted out to a Black student that appears disproportionate. A “punishment that does not fit the crime” should raise alarm bells and signal to the investigator to do a deeper dive.
    4. Lastly, I cannot stress the importance of workplace investigators taking steps to deepen their historical, cultural, and societal context when looking at facts to develop awareness of the broader issue presented. To understand something, you need to identify the things that surround it, i.e., the context.

1 Dancy, T. Elon, “(Un)Doing Hegemony in Education: Disrupting School-to-Prison Pipelines for Black Males” (November 2014) 47:4 Equity & Excellence in Education.

2 Goff, Phillip Atiba; Jackson, Matthew Christian; Di Leone, Brooke Allison Lewis; Culotta, Carmen Marie; Ditomasso, Natalie Ann, “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children” (2014) 106:4 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

3 Andrea Huncar, “Adultification bias robbing Black girls of childhood, researchers say” (January 6, 2023), online: CBC News: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/adultification-bias-edmonton-black-girls-1.6704953.

4 Epstein, Rebecca; Blake, Jamilia J.; Gonzalez, Thalia, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood” (June 2017) Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

5 Ibid.

6 Kiara Alfonseca, “Ralph Yarl case highlights ‘adultification’ of Black children, researchers say,” (April 19, 2023) online: abc news: https://abcnews.go.com/US/ralph-yarl-case-highlights-adultification-black-children-researchers/story?id=98662646.

7 Ontario Human Rights Commission (June 5, 2020). A Letter to Minister Lecce on the Peel District School Board Review. Ontario Human Rights Commission. Retrieved from https://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/news_centre/letter-minister-lecce-peel-district-school-board-review

8 Kiara Alfonseca, “Ralph Yarl case highlights ‘adultification’ of Black children, researchers say,’ (April 19, 2023), online: ABC News: https://abcnews.go.com/US/ralph-yarl-case-highlights-adultification-black-children-researchers/story?id=98662646.

9 Ontario Human Rights Commission (June 5, 2020). A Letter to Minister Lecce on the Peel District School Board Review. Ontario Human Rights Commission. Retrieved from https://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/news_centre/letter-minister-lecce-peel-district-school-board-review

10 Ibid

11 Stella Igweamaka and Nana Appah, “The Adultification of Black girls,” (February 22, 2023), online: Research World: https://researchworld.com/articles/the-adultification-of-black-girls.

12See note 7, above.

13 Jackie Dunham, “Mother outraged, daughter scared after she’s put in school closet for punishment,” (April 4, 2019), online: CTV News: https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/mother-outraged-daughter-scared-after-she-s-put-in-school-closet-for-punishment-1.4365460.

14 Ricardo Veneza, “Police called to Waterloo region Catholic school to assist with 4-year-old student ‘in crisis’,” (February 23, 2022), online: CTV News: https://kitchener.ctvnews.ca/police-called-to-waterloo-region-catholic-school-to-assist-with-4-year-old-student-in-crisis-1.5793463.

15 Natalie Johnson, “Staff under investigation after Black student, 6, allegedly locked in small room in Toronto elementary school,” (March 6, 2023), online: CTV News: https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/staff-under-investigation-after-black-student-6-allegedly-locked-in-small-room-in-toronto-elementary-school-1.6301429.

16 Ibid.

17 Hannah Alberga, “Toronto police find ‘no evidence’ in investigation into Black 6-year-old allegedly locked in small room at school,” (May 11, 2023), online: CTV News: https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/toronto-police-find-no-evidence-in-investigation-into-black-6-year-old-allegedly-locked-in-small-room-at-school-1.6394861.

18 Adjudicator Brenda Bowlby, at para 41.

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