Rebecca Epstein is executive director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law and the head of the center’s Initiative on Gender Justice & Opportunity. Toella Pliakas, a senior at Georgetown University, is an intern at the initiative.

Last week, police officers in Rochester, N.Y., responded to a call of “family trouble.” The source of the trouble was a Black girl, who had said she wanted to kill herself and her mother. The officers on the scene handcuffed the girl and put her in a squad car. Screaming, the girl begged not to be pepper-sprayed and refused to swing her feet into the vehicle. “You’re acting like a child,” the officers told her — to which she responded, “I am a child.” Reaching an impasse, the police pepper-sprayed her and slammed the car door shut. “Unbelievable,” one of them said. The girl was 9 years old.

For an officer to look at a 9-year-old girl and fail to see her as a child is, sadly, consistent with our research, which has shown that adults view Black girls as young as age 5 as less innocent and more like adults than White girls of the same age, and needing less protection and nurturing. Scholars and researchers say the perspective is based in stereotypes of Black women as threatening and aggressive, which are projected onto Black girls. This difference in perception, this blindness to the innocence of a Black child, is not just unfeeling. It is rooted in dehumanization.

The consequences of such adultification biases are profound. Rather than showing Black girls leniency or compassion in keeping with their age, authorities punish them in ways that are wholly out of proportion to their developmental stage. This occurs in many of our public systems, including schools, where young people spend the majority of their time. Our analysis of data from the U.S. Education Department, conducted in partnership with researchers at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, showed that, accounting for their enrollment, in the 2017-2018 school year Black girls ran more than twice the risk as White girls of being placed in physical restraints; they had three times the risk of being referred to law enforcement by their schools; and 3.66 times the risk of being arrested in school.

“There have been too many incidents of school-based harm that criminalize normal adolescent behavior,” Aishatu Yusuf of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute told us. “Instead of seeing Black girls and other girls of color as children, schools and justice systems see them as threats.” Examples are not hard to find. Just last week, a video surfaced of a sheriff’s deputy in a Florida high school breaking up a fight between students by body-slamming Taylor Bracey, a 16-year-old Black girl, to the floor, knocking her unconscious, and handcuffing her.

The Rochester police union’s president, Mike Mazzeo, defended the use of pepper spray, saying it resulted in “no injury” to the 9-year-old child. The statement was revealing in its wrongheadedness. Pepper-spray injuries may not be permanent, but they are often acute — especially for children, whose bodies are still developing. And the harm, of course, is not only physical. The mental health effects “cannot be overstated,” Rohini Haar, a physician who specializes in health and human rights, told a reporter last November after police in Graham, N.C., pepper-sprayed participants in a voting rights march — including young children. Harm at the hands of law enforcement hurts the community as a whole, as Haar noted; it further corrodes the relationship between people of color and government authorities. The incident in Rochester is yet another destructive breach of trust.

The interim Rochester police chief has promised to “do the work we have to do to ensure that these kinds of things don’t happen.” All public systems have that same responsibility toward the children they are entrusted to serve. Here are two steps to start:

First, policymakers and community leaders should increase police and teacher training to guard against racial and gender bias that dehumanizes Black children. These trainings should specifically include education to combat adultification bias against Black girls.

Second, those with authority over children’s lives must learn more about youth development and age-appropriate responses. According to “Gender Injustice,” a report on girls in the justice system, it is crucial to recognize children’s “limited culpability given their age and stage of development, and their capacity for change.” Developmentally appropriate practices can help build relationships, rather than causing further damage.

Adults’ dehumanization of Black girls deprives them of the care and nurturing that should be the inalienable rights of all children. It contradicts the core principle that children should be held less culpable for their actions according to their social and psychological development. It is not enough to express shock or even to suspend individual wrongdoers. We must take meaningful, systemic action to stop the onslaught of needless injury to Black youths and their communities. “Acting like a child” is not, and should never be, a crime.

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