Some are unaware that it’s Disability Pride Month, and for Black students who are persecuted more due to being both Black and disabled, pride is especially difficult. They’re the most pathologized communities to white able-bodied discomfort in American society.
Black students are often placed in special education and treated unfairly, typically without receiving services they need. This fuels the school to prison pipeline and causes more psychological trauma for many Black students. Disability pride means nothing if there are still Black students being punished even further for having special needs, instead of receiving support.
Having a brother and cousin that grew up going through the special education system and a family of educators, including myself, I've seen the failings of the special education system, especially for Black students.
I was able to catch up with Speech-Language Pathologist Crystal Morrison, who has been working in special education for 20 years.
I started by asking Morrison about the unique challenges that Black students in special education face.
“The expectations for them are different. A teacher didn’t like it when, for example, a student with ADHD and his parents didn’t want to medicate him and he was Black. Then I had a white student with ADHD and the same teacher worked brilliantly with the white student’s family and staff. With the Black student, she was very hard on him. Very unforgiving. He was in the office all the time. Maybe she just didn't like him,” Morrison explained.
Morrison’s son, Brevin Morrison is a Black student with special needs. Brevin Morrison, a college student in Fresno State University’s Wayfinders program for adults with special needs, shared with me some insights into what it’s like to be a Black man with special needs in the college system.
He shared that he was falsely accused of creating conflict with his roommates. His now ex-roommate is a white student in the program that had been previously reported for harassing other students, and was eventually kicked out of the program for volatile behavior. However, Brevin Morrison, only one month into the program and new to the school, was blamed for causing the issues, while program administrators believed the white student over him.
The student had been previously kicked out and sent to anger management in order to be allowed back into the program. Additionally, fellow classmates and roommates defended Morrison, but the program disregarded them for a long time. Brevin Morrison explained that he believes that race was a pivotal factor in him being blamed without reason.
“They never apologized, they kind of admitted they made a mistake but never said ‘sorry, we shouldn't have done this.’ I have suspicion that they don’t treat everyone equally,” he said.
In 2019, The United States Commission on Civil Rights released a briefing report called, "Beyond Suspensions: Examining School Discipline Policies and Connections to the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Students of Color with Disabilities." The report expressed that “Nationally, at least 73% of youth with emotional disabilities who drop out of school are arrested within five years of leaving school and researchers found that Black students with disabilities constituted 19% of all students with disabilities, but were over-represented as 50% of students with disabilities in correctional facilities.”
The report also explained that a school engages in intentional discrimination when “the school cannot articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the different treatment [impacting students of color]” or “the nondiscriminatory reason articulated by the school is a pretext for discrimination rather than the actual reason for the different treatment,” which highlights Morrison’s case.
There’s a link to discrimination that Black people with disabilities face and the school-to-prison pipeline. The report defines the school to prison pipeline as “education policies implemented over the past several decades that have worked to remove students from schools and funnel them onto a one-way path toward prison.”
For Black students with special needs, this means that instead of being helped with physical and behavioral health, they are punished more than other children. This happened in the recent case of Elijah McClain, who was a 23-year old massage therapist in Aurora, Colorado, murdered by police while walking home. McClain pleaded with officers as they attacked him, saying “I’m different,” “I’m an introvert” and “Please respect my boundaries!” Many Black mothers feel a deep fear for the violence that their “different” children are vulnerable to.
Educator Sharisse Tracey, who recently wrote an article for The Insider, titled, "My Black Son Who Has Autism Is ‘Different’ Like Elijah Mcclain Was. It Makes Me Fear For His Life More Than I Already Did," shared with me that her son “was diagnosed at two years, nine months and at that time, we lived in a military installation. Where we lived was predominantly white. He was the only African American child in his class the whole time.”
She went on to describe the school her son attended at West Point military base. “As he got older and as the behavior worsened, the punishments, I felt like, were far, far more extreme than they might have been for a non-black child. It was like, how is he in a program for special education, he has a therapist and one-on-one — he has all the support that he's supposed to have — yet, if he has a bad day, he's getting a suspension letter. He was in preschool, at an age where you just wouldn't expect to receive a letter that your child is going to be suspended and/or expelled for behavior.”
Tracey’s son is almost 13 and she continues to have certain worries for his future. “Sometimes, I think Black children, Black boys in particular, the minute they show any kind of behavior are just seen as aggressive, as violent, more so than a non-black child.”
Both Tracey and both Morrisons' agreed that changes are needed for Black students to be treated fairly in education and beyond.
Crystal Morrison explained, for the system to improve, there needs to be significant changes in the ways both parents and educators approach special education for Black students.
“It needs to be brought to the attention of the educators that they do have prejudices. I see it, but I don’t think they see it. And, there's not a lot of Black educators. So, I think that that's hurtful as well.”
She also started volunteering with the school district that her son was in as a speech-language pathologist and noticed the following. “The majority of African-American parents are uninvolved. And I think that the teachers pick up on that and they think, if you don't care, I don’t care. The parents don’t show up for IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) or they only call-in for IEPs, and some Black parents I never met because they never showed up. It could have been simply because they were working. Some people have jobs where they really get dinged if they leave. But it was rare that a Black parent showed up.”
Tracey mentioned that her advice to Black mothers with children with special needs is “to never go to an IEP meeting or even a doctor’s appointment alone.”
“In the first few years you are scared, vulnerable and likely exhausted, so you need an advocate. Know your rights and don’t be afraid to be forceful. Mostly, remember everything will be documented, so be mindful of what’s being noted, Tracey said.
The struggle continues as families with Black children with special needs continue to advocate for their rightful treatment both in the classroom and beyond.