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Support Students; Don’t Villainize Them

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by Dr. Didi L. Watts, The Rock Church (RCA), Los Angeles CA

This article is part of our Spring 2021 Breaking Barriers. This installment focuses on race and disability. If you'd like to read more stories from this issue, please subscribe to Breaking Barriers

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. 

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Participant

There is so much packed into this short report on "Al", yet so many unanswered questions. Dr. Watts begins her story of Al by mentioning he lived in a single-parent home. While there are numerous examples of mothers or grandmothers who raised children who became outstanding adults, many children, especially boys, are severely negatively impacted by the absence of a father or other positive male role model in the home. That was strike one for Al. The trend away from the nuclear family has been disastrous for children.

Regarding the educational aspects of this case, Dr. Watts' report may have suffered from space limitations, just as this comment does, providing ample opportunity for misunderstanding. My wife and I are retired educators. I started teaching grades 7-12, but most of my career was in college, she was a special ed teacher in Michigan for decades and has shared many of her experiences with me.

In this account, we read that Al's mom wanted him to be in special ed but he was ineligible in third grade. Admission is appropriately based on testing. By grade seven he qualified, but somehow what had been asked for when he was in third grade, was now bad, because we read, "Al is one of hundreds of students who have been placed in special education based on biases" and "...acting-out behavior has led to placement in special education for many students." 

What is the evidence for students being placed in special ed because of bias or for punishment for bad behavior? My wife had a boy who came in and said, "Well, you know I can't read," and soon got him reading. She also had a graduating senior, now headed for college on a scholarship, visit her to thank her for special ed help received in elementary school. Special ed is help, not punishment.

Here is another teacher story, not related to special ed but relevant. This one involves racial considerations. A White teacher my wife knows to be a kind and helpful person was trying to help a young Black male student with some schoolwork. The boy said, "You're just picking on me because I'm Black." Picking on him? She replied, "No, I'm 'picking on you' because you don't do your work." How sad that genuine helpfulness is interpreted as racism.

We live in metropolitan Detroit, and one of the charities we contribute to is PAL (Police Athletic League). It has athletic fields on the grounds of the old Tigers Stadium, and members of law enforcement interact with school kids (mostly Black) and serve as role models for them, but this is no substitute for dads. Check the stats on poverty, educational success, and negative reactions with law enforcement for kids from single-parent homes.

Community Builder

Dear Ken,

thank you for taking time to share about your work within education - and that of your wife. It sounds like you have both invested a great deal in the lives of future generations.

You raise a very valid point in this article in that you are reading a small snapshot - 400 words - of the life of Al. There are so many questions that come to mind as Didi shared her viewpoint of his experience. What I feel we have to be careful of doing is putting our own experiences and perspective on another person's lived experience. I know that my perspective, for example, holds more privilege than Al's lived experience. It is important to give space for all the variables in his story that are not expanded upon in this short version of his life. When you noted the response of the Black student to his teacher, my first thought was what has been his lived experience that led to his response? As we pause with these stories, I think it is always important to think of where our own bias is and what we can do to listen well and then how we can advocate for equality within so many of our systems that have simply not been designed in that way historically.

 

Participant

Thanks, Becky.

I was attempting to suggest that, perhaps because of editing to fit available space, the article may have gotten scrambled. As printed, it seemed confusing and self-contradicting. Here are four statements that puzzled me, in view of the heading, because of my experience with special ed.

1. "I have worked with brilliant students who have not been able to work to their full potential for various  reasons.... For Black students, there has been another reason: unconscious bias, which has led to placement in special education."

- unable to work to full potential because of being placed in special ed? Special ed helps students to work to full potential. It doesn't hinder them. Remember the college-scholarship student who thanked my wife for help in special ed.

- placed in special ed because of bias? Students are admitted to special ed only when testing shows they need it, and not for punishment or because of bias.

2. "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."

- Evidently his mother thought it was desirable when he was in third grade.

3. "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."

- Evidently his tests showed he now needed special ed. This was an attempt to help him reach his full potential.

4. "Al is one of hundreds of thousands of students who have been placed in special education based on biases."

- Can "hundreds of thousands" be substantiated? Based on biases? If they qualify for special ed, it isn't bias.

- Now Al was getting what his mother sought earlier.

- Where was the bias? It seems they were trying to help him because he needed help, perhaps because of being fatherless and various other factors in his life, not because he was Black.

- My wife had general ed students who told her they would like to be in her class.

Guide

Ken, I have a child who was enrolled in Special Education from age 3 through age 26, and she benefited greatly from the services she received throughout those years. Through the course of all that contact with the special ed system, my wife felt called to become a special education teacher and has been teaching special education for over 20 years. I believe in the value of a free and appropriate public education for all students in America and thank God for the United States' IDEA act, passed under President Ford, which mandated that. 

I also believe in the power of hearing one another's stories. In fact, that's why Breaking Barriers was created nearly 40 years ago--to provide a forum for people to tell their stories that have disability as one element. The purpose of Breaking Barriers is not to be an academic journal with the attendant research and footnoting. The purpose is for readers to listen in as others tell their stories arising out of their experiences. You have decided that racial bias is not a factor in Al's story, but you never met Al nor know anything about his situation except the necessarily brief description that Dr. Watts gives. In her experience, she has seen frequent racial bias in education. She writes, "For Black students, there has been another reason: unconscious bias, which has led to placement in special education." Then she uses Al's experience as one illustration.

Looking at race as a factor in placement in special education is nuanced and complex. Since that's clearly of interest to you, I'm sure you know how to find the journal articles on that topic; there are many. For me, I appreciate being able to listen in to Dr. Watts as she tells the story of one student from her own perspective as a Black educator. Hearing her story, and others', helps expand my own horizons about the world and people's experiences in it--especially people's experiences that are different from my own. For me, listening in to others' stories is an important part of doing to others as I would have them do to me. 

Participant

Thanks for your input, Mark.

My wife and I view special ed as a good thing that helps kids. Al reportedly qualified for special ed. I was struggling with how putting a student into special ed would be a bad thing to do, and why it would be an indication of racial bias. It was not "picking on me because I'm Black." Why did the author see that as an act of racial bias?

You wrote, "You have decided that racial bias is not a factor in Al's story..." No, I merely don't understand why putting Al into special ed, when he apparently tested in, was an act of racial bias.

I happen to have affinity for non-Caucasian people. After retirement I was a volunteer counselor at a walk-in crisis center for mostly Black people for a few years until I got into teaching English to Middle East immigrants. Along the way, I spent four months at my own expense in Kenya as a volunteer visiting lecturer at Daystar University. I also served a week at my own expense on a medical mission trip to Belize. I also really do want African Americans to do well, and am saddened that many efforts to assist them appear to be counter-productive.

Perhaps I misunderstood the author. I would agree that not giving Al needed help is neglect, but can't see why helping him is an indication of bias.

I have made it a practice to operate under the principle that taking offense when none is given, is just as wrong as it is to give offense. I hope I'm not violating that here.