What is 'adultification' bias and how does it affect kids in the classroom?

This story was featured in our ABC11 special program The Racial Divide: Inequity in Education

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Thursday, July 23, 2020
What is 'adultification' and how does it affect kids in the classroom?
At school, adultification can lead to teachers or administrators to project negative stereotypes onto young Black woman as angry or aggressive; showing less empathy for them than their white peers.

At home in east Raleigh, LaMeaka Moses tries to navigate a path toward racial equity in the education of her three daughters by building some long-needed stability at home.

"My life has been a struggle," Moses said. "I had to put a plan into place to get away from my abuser."

One year later, Moses is safe. She and the girls recovered from homelessness after Catholic Charities helped the family secure a house. But for this single mom, who never finished high school, who now works full-time in fast-food -- keeping her 7th, 6th, and 4th grade daughters on task with online learning through the pandemic has been nearly impossible.

WATCH: The Racial Divide: Inequity in Education

"All of them are determined to succeed but without the proper instruction, I feel it's kind of hard for them, especially with me working full-time," Moses said.


But even before classrooms were forced online by COVID-19, Moses says school was always a source of stress. She says her girls suffer at Wake County schools from what's described as "adultification bias." Researchers at Georgetown Law found adults view Black girls as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls.

At school, adultification can lead to teachers or administrators to project negative stereotypes onto young Black woman as angry or aggressive; showing less empathy for them than their white peers.

"There's always been a difference in how my girls were treated as opposed to other students of another color," Moses said.

In west Cary, Monique Raeford may be in a higher income bracket, but she says her 11-year old daughter faces the same inequities at school: Racist bullying from classmates along with White teachers who did little to stop it.

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Raeford told ABC 11 there was "absolutely not" racial equity within the Wake school system.

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"(The teacher) would send my child out of the classroom and say my child is the problem and made my child out to be the angry student," Raeford said. "I went to the school mangled and in distress. I sat down with the principal and I told her that this teacher was unqualified from day one and I can't have this. I told them that they were compromising my child's mental stability."

Unintentional implicit bias may impact how students are punished. Wake County's suspension rate shows Black students are seven times more likely to receive a short-term suspension. Suspended students are more likely to drop out, have run-ins with the juvenile justice system and more likely to be swept up in the "school-to-prison pipeline."


"What we know is that all schools are not created equal," says David Reese, President and CEO at Durham Children's Initiative.

DCI has spent the past decade slowly working to turn the tide of inequity. The nonprofit first focused solely on the most-distressed communities in east Durham. In late 2019, DCI expanded its focus to include all of Durham County.

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"We are pushing back on traditional structural racism. I think we can call it exactly what it is. And for us, this is about creating the new norm," Reese said.

DCI has had to transform during the pandemic to provide essential services to their impacted families. Every week, its advocates set up a distribution line in the parking lot giving away diapers, food, and gift cards. All while staying focused on DCI's main mission: providing academic and emotional support to children from birth until college or career; helping parents navigate everything from Pre-k decisions to preparing teens for life after high school.

"When we think about dismantling racism in education -- yes, it is back within the school walls. But, it also happens outside the school walls. It happens back within the community. And so this is a collective process," Reese says. "And one in which we have to be extremely intentional about dismantling. Otherwise we end up doing the same things we've done for the past 40 years."

In 2013, Wake County Public Schools created an Office of Equity Affairs to focus on ensuring equity, diversity, and cultural competency as a part of the district's strategic plan. ABC11 invited the director and members of the equity office to be a part of this story -- the district declined.