In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, many Americans find themselves confused, afraid, and angry. Though Trump was fiercely supported by lower-income white Americans, his administration has expressed little, if any, commitment to the uplift of Americans marginalized by class since the election, and has directly contributed to the exacerbation of challenges faced by Americans of color and immigrants. The policies being enacted by the current administration, along with rising political and social tensions, leave many wondering where we are headed as a nation and whether or not we will make progress for America’s most marginalized, especially children.
If we are to understand the complex challenges facing Americans of all stripes and colors, we must first acknowledge that systemic racism is a primary fixture of this country’s structural foundation. Racism, and its self-replicating cycles of oppression, continue to affect us all in profound, terrifying ways, even though we live in the 21st century. Racism never went anywhere. Donald Trump just reminded us that it never left. If we agree that systemic racism significantly informs the structural composition of American society, we must also accept that our social, political, and economic institutions interlock with it. America’s education system, for instance, is mired in a history of racial discrimination, negligence, and denial. Most of us are aware of the Brown v. Board supreme court decision, the factors behind the case, and the effects of overturning the legal segregation of American public schools. Many of us, however, do not understand how racism affects disadvantaged students beyond the matter of integration. Take a longer look at the issues and one will find many complex, hidden negligences, such as the fact that special education laws are not enforced. When it comes to this particular issue, the victims are, unsurprisingly, predominately black and male.
I can almost hear a collective sigh; one of frustration from black readers tired of the seemingly endless cycles of oppression and the other from white readers tired of reading about the unending problem of racism. This collective frustration will not dissipate until and unless our country recognizes that racism belongs to all of us, and can only be undone with all of us committing to fight for equal and fair treatment for people of color and immigrants.
Place yourself in the shoes of a young black man named Demetri, if you can. Demetri grew up in and out of group homes and juvenile detention centers all of his young life. In addition to a lack of stability, support, and homelessness, Demetri struggles with learning disabilities as a student with special education needs. One might think that Demetri would receive more support because of his needs and circumstances, but students like Demetri are routinely left behind or pushed out of the education system. You may be thinking: Why should I care? What makes Demetri’s struggle so significant? You should care because Demetri is entitled to an education. He is entitled to complete his high school education regardless of court-involvement or his actions. Yet, he was not provided one.
What the majority of us don’t know or even think about – unless it impacts us directly - is that a child with learning disabilities that receives special education has a right to a quality education and should matriculate from kindergarten through high school like every other child. However, we know that children living in high-poverty neighborhoods are less likely to receive a quality education, especially those students in the justice systems. How can that be possible when a federal law mandates that all students, like Demetri, with special education needs are entitled to a free appropriate public education? We know the answer to this question lies in systemic racism and in our infrastructure built on slavery, followed by Jim Crow segregation, urban ghettoization, and mass incarceration.
School Justice Project (SJP) is a nonprofit special education legal services organization, founded in August 2013 by Claire Nilsen Blumenson and Sarah Comeau; both attorneys, both white women, and both educated at top schools. These women could have practiced the type of law that help the rich stay rich and get richer or they could fight for justice and equality in education and be a voice for the voiceless. They chose the latter. They are special education attorneys and their mission is to protect the legal rights of students with disabilities and ensure their access to the education guaranteed them by District and federal law.
SJP’s client base is unsurprisingly 86% male, 96% Black and 4% Latinx, but the work of SJP goes beyond representing black and brown clients with special needs; what makes their work even more difficult is the fact that their clients are 17-22 years old with special education needs and involved in the District’s juvenile or criminal justice systems. These are young people that have never had the opportunity to fully utilize the education system and have the system work for them. By the time these students come of age and are considered adults, reentry into the school system – even though they still have a right to continue their education – can be nearly impossible.
SJP works to address what it has coined “the second pipeline” – the transference of students from the juvenile system into the adult criminal justice system. The idea is that older students don’t fit into the traditional school-to-prison pipeline movement. Additionally, people often don’t know about the issues facing this older student population, and a wide gap in data doesn’t help. When it comes to different systems collecting different data from multiple agencies, and when you have students that are lost in these systems, keeping accurate data doesn’t seem to be the highest priority, even when it is the law. While students are shipped to various juvenile detention centers in different states and are taking classes to keep up with their schooling, records are most always muddled and confusion and miscommunication ensues. Claire explains: “The school systems will have one policy, like not taking partial credits. But then the juvenile justice agency will have a policy where they send students out to facilities that will only give them partial credits. So there’s this overlap where these students will never be coming back from juvenile justice facilities with full credits, and yet, the education agencies aren’t going to accept them because they’re not full credits.” The law is supposed to protect these students and it isn’t the students’ responsibility to make sure that the record keeping of all of these various facilities is accurate.
Ultimately, the education rights of these students are disregarded and deemed unimportant and, in turn, schools deny them the opportunity to reenter the classroom and blame the student. This impacts the services the students are promised through special education once they’ve left the juvenile system and has negative effects on students if and when they do reenter the classroom.
Remember Demetri? Let’s put ourselves back in his shoes. His story seems to encapsulate how counterproductive our systems of care can be when they are more about agencies staying in their lane and completing their designated activities than about collaborating to serve young people and strengthen communities. Having lost his parents and grandparents, he faced his biggest fear: aging out of care as a homeless young person without a quality education or career skills. He was determined to complete his schooling and improve his life conditions, in spite of the agency barriers and personal hardships.
In December 2012, he began working with Claire (and then SJP) to get the special education services he needed and enroll in a school that could meet his needs. Previously, he had been placed in an untenable education environment – a GED program. The juvenile justice system had placed him in GED courses, instead of diploma courses, making it impossible for him to achieve academic success as he needed special education (something not available in GED programs). GED programs are especially difficult for students with special education needs because the programs do not provide special education services. Once with SJP, he began the process of reentering the school system. Yet, each time he attempted to enroll, he was denied – in stark violation of controlling law that guaranteed to him a high school diploma option.
He was told his only option would be 9th grade at a neighborhood DCPS high school. In Demetri’s own words he says, “To be honest with you, I felt very, very, embarrassed. Humiliated.” Fortunately, Demetri was not deterred. He turned to litigation. Determined to get his high school diploma, he knew he needed to seek out the individualized instruction and services he was owed under law.
After years of legal battles, Demetri is still working towards receiving his diploma and he is also now a youth advocate for education reform. Demetri recently talked about his work with SJP:
We have been seeing great progress within these four years. We have inserted policies in the juvenile system and the education system. Since I met Ms. Claire when I was 20 years old, I have been recognized by other organizations that now want me to better the system through their own organizations. We need more advocates like this doing this work. Ms. Claire has turned me into the advocate I am and I am proud to be a young black African-American youth leader and activist so I can now be a voice for the youth.
His story is one of millions, but hopefully, his story and voice will make a difference for those currently being discarded, funneled through the second pipeline, and unrepresented. Without an education, without options, without support, and with those in power happier when black and brown people are imprisoned, it’s of no surprise that recidivism is an unending cycle. It costs more money to keep prisons running than to actually educate, rehabilitate, and employ. This isn’t an inconsequential issue; this impacts us all. Access to education leads to gainful employment and positive community engagement.
How can you help? Supporting SJP is a start.