Who’s Afraid of an IEP?  A Lot of Black Families

“Don’t let them kick me out.”  That’s what “Johnny” (not his real name) said when he heard that his new school found out about his special needs and Individualized education plan (IEP).  His mom was worried too, she had seen several restrictive schools, where restraints were regular and sometimes bordered on assaults.  Well, they were assaults sometimes.

She didn’t want that for him, “It’s because he is Black, they are labeling him and don’t even know him.”  His mom said, worried whether they would even give him a chance.

Unfortunately, I agree with them

“Johnny” has faced down more challenges than any child should.  He did have violent outbursts and at times seemed depressed. He talked about self-harm at an age that kids shouldn’t even understand the concept. He is also brilliant, talented, caring, sometimes shy, sweet, and wonderful.

But once you are labeled will anyone see beyond that?

He can be challenging, but the schools have not treated him well.

Calling the cops on an elementary student, who couldn’t have weighed 100 pounds.  Handcuffed in front of this peers, his family bullied by the system into signing papers, and generally he just didn’t get the help he needed.

The system just wanted to move him on

The last 4 months of last school year his mom home schooled him because the district (not Oakland thankfully, West Contra Costa) only offered a residential programs out of state.  And when I say out of state, it’s not the good states.  We are talking states like Texas and Montana, where who knows what they would do to a young Black boy.

I worked years in a group home.  It was no place for children.  It was hell for children.  At best it trained you for institutional living, at worst it would make you institutionalized.

I visited his mom in the Santa Rita juvenile facility on mother’s day probably 20 years ago.  She knows what those places are.

Mind you he wasn’t even suspended or expelled, the district just said it didn’t have any placements for him given his perceived needs.  His IEP, that piece of paper supposed to protect him.

A new year, a new school, and old stigma

Mom called me as the school year was starting.  I told her he had the right to go to a public school and she should just enroll him.

“Call me if you have a hard time.”

They both knew, we all knew, that in reality the IEP was not helping him, it labeled him, and the system saw that label. And it would throw that label in the trash heap.

Fuck that.

So this year mom enrolled him in the neighborhood school.  She didn’t tell them about his IEP.  And when they found out, she was worried and so was he, and so was I.

While the IEP is supposed to provide a set of supports and protections—many of the supposed beneficiaries don’t view it that way.  They see it not as a protective badge but a scarlet letter.  And they aren’t necessarily wrong.

While there is an overall under identification of special needs in African American students, there seems like an over identification of specific categories like emotional disturbance and a greater segregation once identified.  And once you get that label you go to a separate class or separate school, with all the other kids they were moving on, who are disproportionately Black.

Studies prove this out.  Black students with disabilities are much more likely to spend most of their day in a segregated setting, according to one study

 Fifty-five percent of White students with disabilities spend 80 percent of their school day in general education classrooms. Only one-third of Black students with disabilities spend 80 percent of their day in general education classrooms.

And I don’t need no study, I have seen this.

You get segregated into the highest needs classrooms, often with completely overwhelmed staff, where the purpose seems more to keep you away from the other kids than to actually help you or teach you.  There are always some exceptional staff, who do care deeply, but the system doesn’t.

The system wants to throw you on a trash heap.

Back to “Johnny.”

After a few days at school, the counselor reached out to mom.  They probed the IEP issue, and despite the fact he was doing basically fine and had supportive staff, they said he needed a residential program.

So mom waived his IEP, she voluntarily gave up her rights and some of his protections.

I am and was worried about this.

They gave her a choice without a choice, give up your rights or give up your school.  And she gave up her rights.  And I do worry this is a set up.  Having an IEP is supposed to protect you from being punished for behavior related to the disability, especially when the school doesn’t provide the supports it promised.  Giving up those rights will allow them to easily suspend or expel Johnny if they so choose.

But in a rigged game, and one we know too well, we do the best we can.

I love that kid, I told her that, and to call me if the try to fuck with him.

That is the best I can do.

But the game is rigged, and anyone really playing it knows that.


What do you think?

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