Stepping Up for Black Children with Disabilities

It’s Black History Month!

Many schools this month will be hosting lectures and lessons on Black history. As important as it is to celebrate Black History Month, it’s also important to remember that every month should be an opportunity to teach students about Black history and the diversity of the United States. In this post, I’m taking the opportunity to discuss the inequities in how Black students with disabilities are treated in our schools. Because of the discrimination Black students with disabilities face, school isn’t always a safe place and education isn’t always a path to success.

Is there an over-identification or an under-identification of Black students with disabilities?

Identification is the first step necessary to get support for a student with a disability, and it’s generally a difficult process. For many disabilities, including broadly defined terms like specific learning disabilities, emotional disturbance, and intellectual disability, there is what Congress acknowledges to be deep racial disproportionality in identification, meaning that Black students are very likely to be labeled with these terms—even if there is more complexity to their actual disability status. In addition, the number of U.S. children being diagnosed with autism has increased significantly in recent years; two groups are underrepresented in the growing number of students identified as having autism: Black and Hispanic children. These disparities represent the results of human error, inaccuracy, and implicit bias in the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) identification process. These disparities mean that many Black students are not receiving the kind of services and support they need to be successful learners. 

How are Black students with disabilities affected by school discipline?

Another inequity is found in discipline. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights published a report titled “School Discipline” in March 2014. The findings of this report demonstrate what a dire situation Black students with disabilities face in public schools.

Black students are disproportionately represented in the number of students being disciplined in ways that remove a student from the classroom or even from the school completely. Black students make up only 16% of students enrolled in public schools. Black students make up 32% of students facing in-school suspension, 33% of students facing a single out of school suspension, 42% of students facing multiple out of school suspensions, and 34% of expulsions. This results in a disproportionate number of Black students who are being exited from the school system.

Now add the statistics for Black students with disabilities. More than one out of four Black boys with disabilities receive an out-of-school suspension while nearly one in five Black girls with disabilities receive an out-of-school suspension. Compare this to a little more than one in ten White boys with disabilities and less than one in ten White girls with disabilities. How can this help the student be a successful learner or feel safe when going to school?

The most telling statistic for Black students with disabilities of all of the data collected by the 2014 report is found in a chart titled “Students with disabilities subjected to mechanical restraint, by race/ethnicity.” Black students are cited as 19% of students with disabilities (as identified by IDEA); however, they are 36% of the students who are subjected to mechanical restraint. What is mechanical restraint? It’s when a school uses objects like straps, handcuffs or bungee cords to control, subdue, restrain a student. Yes, this happens in modern day U.S. American schools.

Is the school system forcing the criminalization of Black students with disabilities?

Of students subjected to law enforcement, meaning the school calls the police on students for breaking rules, Black students (16% of students enrolled) make up 27% of the students referred to law enforcement and 31% of school-related arrests.

The criminalization of Black students with disabilities creates a system wherein students who need services and support are instead receiving discipline and deterrence. Students who believe that their race, their disability or disabilities, their background, their family, their struggle will act as limitations to their success, will have a very hard time believing in themselves and the power of their dreams, voice, education, and future. Furthermore, criminalization of these students forces them onto the treacherous path called the school to prison pipeline.

What is the school to prison pipeline?

According to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), the school to prison pipeline is

“a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into juvenile and criminal justice systems [. . . ] cops in school lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school.”

For example, a five year old Black boy, a kindergarten student in a Mississippi school, was sent home in a police car for wearing the wrong color shoes. 

This trend in schools to call in law enforcement to deal with school infractions, also known as “zero tolerance” policies, further stigmatizes how police officers view Black children, especially those with disabilities.

The results of this stigma are seen with cases like that of Reginald “Neli” Latson, a young Black man with Asperger’s Syndrome. In May 2010, an 18-year-old Neli walked to the library and sat outside after finding it to be closed. Calls were made to the police station about a “suspicious” man loitering outside the library and a police officer approached Neli, asking for his name. Neli, uncertain of his security in the situation, refused to give the officer his name. An altercation followed, Neli was arrested, and charged with assault. Since 2010, Neli spent the majority of his days in solitary confinement, an environment that greatly harms his well-being. This is an incident that could have been avoided. Had the officer been trained in appropriate techniques to determine if the person had a disability, Neli would likely still be living with his parents, enjoying his daily walks and the freedom of mobility. 

What will fix the school to prison pipeline?

Shifting the Disciplinary System: From Punitive to Restorative

Many schools are removing extreme punishments from their disciplinary practices almost entirely. These programs move from a justice system based on punitive actions to one based on restorative actions. Students at Edna Brewer Middle School, in Oakland, California, are being trained in mediation, peer leadership, and conflict resolution skills. An article published in December 2014 by Mind/Shift, details the consequences students face in lieu of suspensions— “school community service, apologies, public acknowledgement of their bad behavior— and more.” The school even brings parents into the dialogues, aptly named “harm circles,” that follow incidents of misconduct. Having everyone involved in the dialogues creates a stronger community, breaking down the barriers that school suspensions create, and allowing all to work together for the future and success of the students.

Students who face “punishment” in restorative justice programs are even tasked with teaching other students about conflict resolution and how to get along with classmates. The system is designed so that the community becomes closer and closer, students who act out are “called in” instead of thrown out, and parents and educators who participate are appreciated for their efforts in educating and raising children who face such great challenges.

Most importantly perhaps, restorative justice programs come from within the communities where students who face such discrimination live. Community members, especially parents, students, and non-administrative educators, are key to the success of these programs --- no one knows the needs of the community better than the community members themselves. This may seem obvious to some, but the movement to reform has not always included the “stakeholders” in these students’ success; reform movements for the school to prison pipeline need to be as diverse as the students who are in danger of being pushed into the pipeline.

Nurturing Community in the Classroom

Schools who nurture community in the classroom take a holistic approach to supporting students. “All-In”, a program also pioneered in Oakland, works against the school to prison pipeline by turning the educational system on its head. The teacher is no longer the focus, standing at the front of the classroom. Students are placed in classrooms with four adults instead of one, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and two counselors to assist with behavior management throughout the course of the day. This system allows general education and special education teachers to learn from one another, especially about how to identify and accommodate for particular Learning Differences. It also allows counselors, who are specifically trained to assist students with problem solving, perspective taking, coping skills, etc., to work with students in the environment where they face such challenges. A student on an IEP might otherwise receive support from a general education teacher, special education teacher, and counselors over the course of a week or month in several different classrooms, segregated from their peers. “All-In” brings the community into the general education classroom, so that students feel safe, secure and supported in their environment.

What is society’s role?

Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, said

“Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”

We owe our children more. Black children live in fear of being taken out of school and placed in the criminal justice system. Black children with disabilities live in fear of staying in the criminal justice system. We as a society need to stand up for all children. We need to ask our schools, school districts, and school boards what they are doing to reduce the school to prison pipeline. Maybe there is something you can do to help.

What can you do in your community to make the educational system better?

Related Reading – Ending the Prison to School Pipeline

Organizing to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline: An Analysis of Grassroots Organizing Campaigns and Policy Solutions by Michael P. Evens and Celeste R. Didlick-Davis, Miami University

Alternative to School Suspension Explored Through Restorative Justice by MindShift

Government Releases New Guidelines to Fix School-to-Prison Pipeline. What Do Teachers Think? by Suzi Parker

Related Reading - Statistics

Disturbing Inequities: Exploring the relationship between racial disparities in special education identification and discipline

School Discipline, Civil Rights Data Collection by the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights

Extreme Discipline Targets Minority US School Kids: Report

The Hidden Epidemic of Undiagnosed Disabilities Among Students of Color by S.E. Smith

Double jeopardy: Disabled and Black disability, race, and their interaction

Black, Hispanic kids underrepresented in autism identification 

An update on Reginald Neli Latson: Earlier this month, Virginia Governor, Terry McAuliffe, signed a conditional pardon which allowed Neli to be transferred to a treatment facility. 

Editor’s Note: Both Black and White are capitalized here when referring to race in tradition with APA Style

“Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”

We owe our children more. Black children live in fear of being taken out of school and placed in the criminal justice system. Black children with disabilities live in fear of staying in the criminal justice system. We as a society need to stand up for all children. We need to ask our schools, school districts, and school boards what they are doing to reduce the school to prison pipeline. Maybe there is something you can do to help.

What can you do in your community to make the educational system better?

Related Reading – Ending the Prison to School Pipeline

Organizing to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline: An Analysis of Grassroots Organizing Campaigns and Policy Solutions by Michael P. Evens and Celeste R. Didlick-Davis, Miami University

Alternative to School Suspension Explored Through Restorative Justice by MindShift

Government Releases New Guidelines to Fix School-to-Prison Pipeline. What Do Teachers Think? by Suzi Parker

Related Reading - Statistics

Disturbing Inequities: Exploring the relationship between racial disparities in special education identification and discipline

School Discipline, Civil Rights Data Collection by the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights

Extreme Discipline Targets Minority US School Kids: Report

The Hidden Epidemic of Undiagnosed Disabilities Among Students of Color by S.E. Smith

Double jeopardy: Disabled and Black disability, race, and their interaction

Black, Hispanic kids underrepresented in autism identification 

An update on Reginald Neli Latson: Earlier this month, Virginia Governor, Terry McAuliffe, signed a conditional pardon which allowed Neli to be transferred to a treatment facility. 

Editor’s Note: Both Black and White are capitalized here when referring to race in tradition with APA Style