by Dr. Didi L. Watts, The Rock Church (RCA), Los Angeles CA
Over my 20-plus years in education, I have worked with brilliant students who have not been able to work to their full potential for various reasons, including systemic issues such as chronic homelessness or chronic illness. For Black students, there has been another reason: unconscious bias, which has led to placement in special education. Students have shared that they were not held to high expectations because of their circumstances. As a result, they have felt ostracized. Al was one such student.
Al lived with his mother and younger brother in the Los Angeles area. Al began his schooling as a kindergarten student at a Los Angeles elementary school. While in third grade, he was suspended for two days due to willful defiance. His mother requested a special education evaluation due to poor academic achievement, but at the time of the evaluation Al was found not to be eligible for services.
Al had excessive absences from school, averaging 31 missed days per school year due to chronic illness. His family had dealt perpetually with unstable housing throughout Al’s education years. As a result, he moved to several different schools over the next two years. During fifth grade, Al received a one-day suspension for attempting to damage property. Al transferred to a different elementary school for sixth grade, where he remained for the first quarter of the school year. He would transfer to two more schools during sixth grade. Again, Al was suspended for willful defiance for one day. Academically, he continued to demonstrate difficulties meeting grade-level standards, receiving scores of below and far below proficiency.
During seventh grade, Al was reevaluated for special education, and it was determined that he met eligibility criteria for Other Health Impairment (OHI), due to attention-deficit-like characteristics. Al was placed in a special day class within the school. He remained in the same school until eighth grade, when the individualized education program (IEP) team agreed that the least restrictive environment would be the nonpublic school setting. (Certified by the state to provide special education services when a school district is unable to meet the needs of a student, nonpublic schools essentially segregate students from their non-disabled peers.)
Al is one of hundreds of thousands of students who have been placed in special education based on biases. Rather than providing early intervention for academics or addressing systemic issues such as housing insecurity or healthcare inadequacies, acting-out behavior has led to placement in special education for many students. We must change the system rather than villainize the students for society’s ills. Students are resilient, so let’s support prevention and intervention services.