Minority Students With Disabilities Fast-Tracked to Prison: Activist Leroy Moore, Jr. Talks Solutions

The prison-to-pipeline problem won't be solved overnight, but there are strategies parents, schools, advocacy groups and government authorities are trying to implement to protect students living with disabilities.
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In part one of this Q&A, Leroy Moore, Jr., founder of the Krip-Hop movement, which produces hip-hop mix tapes featuring disabled hip-hop artists from around the world, discussed how minority special education students have become the new supply for prisons. As an activist and one of the founders of the National Black Disability Coalition, he's been part of the discussion for some time. In the second half of this Q&A, Leroy discusses the possible solutions, including training additional black men to teach in the classrooms, as well as better training of teachers to recognize behavioral problems associated with certain disabilities.

Leroy Moore, Jr.'s new book

Q: You already discussed the problems of students with special needs being funneled into prisons at an alarming rate. Let's talk about the solutions. Do you see any immediate solutions?

Leroy: The prison-to-pipeline problem won't be solved overnight, but there are strategies parents, schools, advocacy groups and government authorities are trying to implement to protect students living with disabilities. One of the most direct ways students with disabilities are funneled into the prison system is the asymmetrical use of law enforcement to enforce discipline policies. Too often, teachers and school administrators are willing to call the police to respond to behavioral issues that they should be trained to respond to without the use of law enforcement. Parents can protect their children in part by specifying in their child's Individualized Education Program (IEP) that the police have no contact with their child. The IEP is a mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). It's a legal document that puts in writing the student's needs and it's also used to measure progress. The parents also need to specify that they don't want their child interviewed by the police, or the school's police liaison officer without a parent being present.

Leroy Moore, Jr.

[Editor's note: There are 26,407 public secondary schools and 10,693 private secondary schools in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Education. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, schools have been adding more armed police, according to a report from Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy at Dartmouth College. Zero tolerance, which has been part of the school discipline discussion since the 1990s, was originally used as an approach in drug enforcement. The zero-tolerance policy in education created consequences often punitive in nature.

Q: How could additional teachers' training help?

Leroy: At the school and district level, measures can be taken to remove police officers from schools and increase the presence of specialists and counselors. Teachers and administrators can also be more effectively trained to identify and deescalate behaviors without the use of force or law enforcement. This training should be reinforced with policy that directly outlines responses to certain behaviors and implements clear steps that must be taken before law enforcement can be called in. Training and policy shifts should be implemented at the state and national levels, as well.

Q: Any examples of this training?

Leroy: There are a growing number of examples of schools faced with learning and discipline problems breaking out of the current zero-tolerance mold and taking a more creative approach. Sometimes you have to start from scratch, and we're seeing people that have been through a horrible system and come back to create a school that works with discipline and hope. The Ascend Charter High School, in Brooklyn, New York, is a good example. The school requires students to take responsibility for their actions and there are daily sessions to build relationships with faculty. The school aims to defuse problems before they escalate by having the teachers talk about the consequences of one's actions, rather than making suspension the first line of defense in dealing with discipline problems.

Ascend's founding Director Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño with students.

Q: But say a student who has behavioral disabilities and is acting out in class, such as having angry outbursts. Do schools realistically wait for a parent and not call the police?

Leroy: Yes, in most cases. Absolutely. Law enforcement should be the last recourse. Angry outbursts are often part of growing up. Teachers and administrators should be trained and prepared to handle these kinds of typical behaviors without calling in law enforcement, in general. When it comes to students living with disabilities specifically, typical childhood behavior is often translated into something more dangerous than it actually is. The same can be said for students of color. A white student without a disability is less likely to have the police called on them for displaying typical teenage anger, for example, than a student of color or a student living with a disability, for the exact same behavior. Students having angry outbursts aren't an epidemic in the school system. Of course, there will always be isolated incidents. The current systemic problem is the use of that excuse to pull students with disabilities out of the classrooms and put them behind bars.

Students living with disabilities may need a more specialized deescalation approach than students from the general population. This approach doesn't require the use of law enforcement. Part of the problem and solution is training teachers to recognize the start of a behavioral change. They have to be trained about the triggers and what to look for. This also calls for the student, as best he or she can, along with the parents, to discuss the telltale signs that can trigger anger, agitation and other forms of acting out. For instance, the non-profit, Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights, is a good resource for teachers and parents. It provides a list of questions to ask schools, such as whether the IEP includes a clause that the child should have a safe place to calm down. Other clauses or questions to ask the school should also include: Are there specific instructions in the IEP that spells out how teachers can calm down a student; are school-liaison police aware of a student's disability and how behavioral changes can manifest? Schools, parents and teachers need to include in the IEP detailed examples of a child's behavior that would prompt a call to the police.

Leroy Moore, Jr.

Q: Are policy rules created at the state, federal or local school level?

Leroy: There has to be consistent rules and we need to understand the rules on the local, state and federal levels. Gioioa von Disterlo, Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, and a long-term community advocate, and I both agree that one of the difficulties with policies is that they are formed at the district level. As a result, children often lack protection depending on which school or district implements a policy. It also means that many districts and schools may be enforcing policies at the local levels that directly conflict with state and federal law. Because of this localized approach, there is a lack of consistency nationwide when it comes to supporting and protecting students with disabilities. So identifying the exact policies that students are being [screwed] under and then challenging those in court is important. So there needs to be consistent rules and then we need to understand the rules on the local, state and federal level.

Q: You mention in our previous interview that zero-tolerance policies are driving a lot of special needs students into the prison pipeline. How are states resolving this issue?

Leroy: Currently, most of the resistance to zero-tolerance policies is at the local level. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District is working to reduce overly harsh discipline and eliminate zero-tolerance policies by referring students to counseling and administrative discipline rather than being sent to juvenile court. This may involve students involved in non-serious altercations, accused of petty thefts and minor vandalism. Other states, such as Florida, students have been arrested for bringing a plastic butter knife to school and throwing an eraser. Legislation has since been passed prohibiting schools from calling the police for nonviolent misdemeanors. Others states are also looking at their laws and changing them, but it's up to the school districts, which create and enforce their zero-tolerance policies, to change their stance on zero-tolerance. Texas also passed a bill that allows officials to consider "mitigating factors" before they punish students. Texas used to have a very harsh zero-tolerance policy. For instance, violations of the code of conduct could end up in a student being expelled or suspended.

Race, of course, is associated with greater likelihood of being suspended or expelled, as well as students with special needs.

Source: PBS, SuspensionStories.com

Q: Some critics say that instituting "restorative justice policies" in the Los Angeles Unified School District has had some adverse side effects. Can you elaborate?

Leroy: The adverse side effects that are being referred to in LAUSD have less to do with the actual policy and more to do with the implementation of the policy. The main complaints involve a lack of funding, resources and training. Policy can't just be dictated. It has to be supported. While partial implementation has already produced effects that benefit students in the district, the frustration with lack of funding and training threatens these protections. Ultimately, in order for the programs to work, they have to be fully funded and supported. Again, these policies are left to the discretion of the districts. Protections from the school-to-prison pipeline need to be consistently enforced at the state and federal levels. Implementation of these protections on a school-by-school basis cannot produce the systemic change needed to abolish the pipeline nationwide.

Q: Does zero-tolerance conflict with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?

Leroy: Yes. Ultimately the goal would be to say that zero-tolerance laws conflict with IDEA. Period. There are numerous examples of the conflict. A 2000 national summit on zero tolerance cited many examples of the conflict. In 1997, the IDEA was amended to assure that children with disabilities would not be punished for behavior that is characteristic of the child's disability. In many instances, however, school officials are ignoring federal law. And parents and students are often unaware of their rights, making it difficult to push back and push for change.

Q: Critics, including you, say IDEA is not fully funded by the federal government, making it difficult to fully enforce high educational standards. Can you elaborate?

Leroy: Part of the problem with any civil rights legislation is that there are always opponents and ways to get around the law. The rise of Jim Crow laws in response to the end of slavery provides a strong example of that process. IDEA is one policy that can provide some protections, but can't in and of itself end discrimination against people living with disabilities. So part of the problem is that IDEA does not provide all of the protections needed. This doesn't mean that the protections that are provided should be removed, but it does mean that additional protections need to be fought for at the federal level. It also means that IDEA and any other protective policies need to be fully funded and supported in order to function properly. Look, since the law was passed 40 years ago, the federal government has failed to provide even half of the funding to help schools with special needs requirements. Books are outdated; there's a lack of supplies and teaching material and the costs are shifted to states and local districts. So special needs students receive only the materials and services districts can afford - not necessarily what they need or what the law dictates they are eligible for.

It's also important to talk about how special education really isn't a solution in the first place. That it's always been a place to send people to [screw] them out of the school system, the job market and society in general. According to Dr. G.S. Potter, it's a form of social and economic segregation that has always been tied to incarceration. So yes, fully funding and implementing IDEA is good. But we also need to reassess whether or not IDEA is a good idea in the first place, in part or whole, needs to be discussed. And this discussion needs to be led by people from the disabled community that are looking for solutions that are better that IDEA, not solutions that just seek to dissolve what little protections we have at the federal level.

Q: Can you discuss the civil rights issue in the special needs classroom?

Leroy: Civil rights issues deal with unfair discrimination on the basis of characteristics such as race, class and disability. Filtering students with disabilities into the prison pipeline and otherwise using school policies to discriminate against them is a violation of basic civil rights. At the federal level, legislation such as the Civil Rights Acts and IDEA provide limited protections, but they are not enough to secure equal treatment in schools specifically, or in society in general. While local schools and districts are fighting to secure these rights more fully, more needs to be done at the state and federal level to ensure that rights are secured throughout the system, not just school by school.

States must look to systematically address the role of racism and discrimination in solving chronic inequities in the special needs system. I'm not the only one saying this. There are many others, including Jane Dunhamn, the founder of the National Black Disability Coalition (NBDC), and the parent of a successful daughter with cerebral palsy. Today NBDC is working on getting Black Disability Studies into colleges and universities, as well as its National Campaign for Minority Disability Legislation. She argues that addressing these inequities would require "reinventing and disrupting policy and practice." She also says that mainstream disability-rights organizations and government agencies must actively work on these issues. The disability community must have a meaningful conversation about race, racism and discrimination. Dunhamn's policy work has had a major effect on Black and poor people with disabilities.

Due to a wide array of disability issues that are unique to poor people and people of color it is important to establish legislation, which require state agencies serving underrepresented disability communities to compile data and report to the stakeholders. Jane and this campaign needs your support and the NBDC is seeking individuals who are interested in initiating a minority disability bill in their state.

Q: What about having more people of color in classrooms?

Leroy: Back in 1995, I did a study on three Bay area college campuses on the status of special education majors and found many troubling things. Textbooks were outdated and were written mostly by white, non-disabled people. Now, it's more than 20 years latter and little progress has been made. Besides needing more women of color to teach, we need additional black men in the classrooms teaching. Currently, black men make up less than two percent of our teachers.

[Editor's note: According to statistics from National Center for Education, nearly 82 percent of public school teachers in school year 2011-12 were white.]

From the film, "Where Is Hope," co-produced by Leroy Moore, Jr.

The U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is heading some initiatives to help recruit black men into teaching. For instance, the government is working with TEACH.org, a public-private initiative, to assist in finding skilled candidates. There are other programs happening around the country as well, including one at Southern University at New Orleans. The Honoré Center for Undergraduate Achievement gives full scholarships to young African American men who show promise. The program teaches these young men to become teachers. The program believes these men who grew up in challenging circumstances will likely be better able to help students given their similar backgrounds.

So despite the lack of progress being made over the decades, reports on training more black male students to become teachers, gives me hope that we are trying to find solutions. Ultimately, training more students of color who are disabled themselves, would be the most ideal solution.

[Editor's note: For more information on similar programs see this Hechinger Report.]

Leroy Moore, Jr. Bio: Leroy Moore, Jr. is the founder of the Krip-Hop movement, which produces hip-hop mix tapes featuring disabled hip-hop artists from around the world. He is also one of the founders of the National Black Disability Coalition; the author of the recent book The Black Kripple Delivers Poetry & Lyrics. Leroy also writes and publishes widely on the intersection of race and disability; he's one of the leading voices on police brutality and the wrongful incarceration of people with disabilities. In addition, he's the assistant producer on an upcoming documentary, Where Is Hope, a film on police brutality against people with disabilities. He also lectures around the world on the issues of race, disability and social injustice.

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