Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Diversity and Disability

Print by Eliza Factor

For four years, my son went to a New York City public school that is coveted among parents in Brownstone Brooklyn, and that enshrines the false belief that it is inclusive to all. Among a handful of schools, it offers a progressive curriculum, opportunities to connect with similar parents, and what journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has termed “curated diversity”: the kind of diversity “white parents like . . . so they’ll still be the majority and there won’t be too many black kids.” Its website features the ubiquitous collage of smiling black and brown faces. For the last three years, the school has participated in New York City’s Diversity in Admissions pilot, under which low income children receive priority for a percentage of kindergarten seats. In classrooms, PTA meetings, and on the playground, there were earnest and well-intended discussions about race, gender, and sexual orientation.

But like many progressive-minded schools that attract well-intentioned, well-off families, the school had little interest in nurturing neurodiversity. Although the principal often referred to the school as an “inclusion school,” which means that students with disabilities learn alongside their neurotypical peers and instruction is differentiated for all, it has a massive flaw when it comes to special needs diversity, and that flaw reveals itself in every layer of the community:  the administration, the teachers, the parents, and the kids. 

During the time my son attended the school, both kids and parents stigmatized the Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classroom in each grade, which is where many kids with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are placed. A student told me he was glad he wasn’t in the class “with the bad kids,” and parents lobbied the administration to ensure that their kids were not placed in that classroom. Kids who struggled to adhere to behavioral norms were particularly singled out. A parent told our sitter that my son, who has ADHD and other special needs, was “dangerous.” One of my son’s classmates referred to him as “a bad boy” throughout the four years he was a student there. The school did little to stop this kind of stigmatizing, despite my requests to teachers and administrators. Parents shrugged it off.

These statements and attitudes harm everyone, but they harm kids with disabilities most directly. The school’s inability to reflect on the damage this stigma inflicted on children with special needs seems at odds with its espoused commitment to restorative justice, which encourages members of the community to reflect on harms, consider their root causes, and determine how to make amends. 

My son, who is now 9, has struggled at school and at home as a result of his disabilities. This past fall, in fourth grade, things got worse, and the school responded by cracking down in ways that flew in the face of its restorative justice ideals. The school suspended my son several times. Each time, administrators violated the Chancellor’s Regulations in numerous ways – including not providing appropriate notice, not collecting appropriate documentation, and not contacting me within appropriate time frames. When I inquired about these issues, school personnel told me that because the school operates within a restorative justice framework, they don’t know how to follow the regulations that govern a suspension.

In one written statement, a sports coach described my son’s behavior as “completely unhinged.” When I pointed out to administrators that it was inappropriate to refer to a 9-year-old child in that way, I received no response. The school social worker then told me there was nothing they could do about it, because it was the coach’s right to use that language. I suggested that similarly derogatory language around race, gender, or sexual orientation would not be deemed acceptable – and received no response. The community’s flaws around special needs allowed the school to overlook the language.

In December, we left the school, where my son had been since kindergarten. I stayed in touch with a handful of parents. Beyond those people, not a single teacher, administrator, staff person, or parent has reached out to ask how we were doing.

Actually, one person did reach out. My son played on a baseball team last spring with several kids from the school, in a league unconnected to it. He loved baseball, and was looking forward to playing this year, so I signed up early. In late February, after sign-up for all baseball leagues was closed, I got a call from the team’s coach. Several school parents had expressed concern about my son being on the team, after word spread about an episode during an afterschool basketball practice that none of them had observed. I can’t put both of us under such scrutiny, so he will not be playing baseball this spring, despite the fact that he has been looking forward to it all year. This is the kind of bullying that highlights the community’s lack of inclusion. When I contacted the school to ask them to intervene, I received no response. 

I am an entitled white person. I have a law degree and a PhD. I don’t have a lot of money, but I know how to access it. I took out a $200,000 loan to pay for a new school, because the public school system cannot educate my son. I recognized when my son’s rights were being violated, and I spoke up. When my son was suspended without due process, I complained. He has me to defend him. I worry about kids whose parents don’t have the resources I have. Those kids, apparently, can still be suspended based on the statement of a principal, without any verification of the statement, in contradiction of the Chancellor’s Regulations. 

As I work through my anger and sadness over how my son and I have been excluded from a community that celebrates its embrace of diversity, I think about an interview I heard with a woman whose child was mentally ill. She said “it’s not a casserole illness” -- people don’t bring you food, check on you, and offer help. My son’s special needs didn’t merit a casserole, let alone a friendly email. They fell outside of the concerns of the school, and of many of the families that seek out schools like this one. We have a long way to go in terms of understanding that diversity includes supporting kids with special needs and their families.

Hilary Botein is an associate professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York (CUNY). She studies the social politics of low income housing and community development. She lives with her son in Brooklyn.

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