Being one of the first or the only students with any discernible divergence in any characteristic is dangerous, difficult, and involves tremendous courage. Over 50 years ago, at the beginning of a school year, the Little Rock Nine walked with angry white mobs behind them into their local high school to exercise their right to a public education with their white peers. Initially, the Arkansas national guard blocked their entrance by order of the Arkansas governor. Eventually, President Eisenhower ordered my stepfather’s unit, the 101 airborne division, excluding my stepfather and all black soldiers, to escort the students to and from the high school. Time Magazine’s 2007 Legacy of Little Rock article recap of the more than half century that has passed since these events reminds us that sadly, most of our schools are still bereft of equality and still segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines. Most schools today are also not truly inclusive of disabled students, particularly those who have apparent differences, multiple challenges, or whose neurodivergence is clear and cannot be masked.
The thing about relating historic events is that documenting them doesn’t always impart the impact on those taking part in them.
We frequently discuss bullying in schools, and how things must be done to stop it. Disparities in education amplify the likelihood of abuse of all minority pupils in life threatening ways on a daily basis. When a student steps up and insists on exercising their right to a free and appropriate education, and that student’s parents make the decision to support their son or daughter, an entire series of events is set into motion. These events that set the stage for disaster in the aftermath of victory evolve from the resentment of radical change by those who feel they benefit in some way from the status quo. Being new, different, first, has consequences. What happens if, unlike the Little Rock Nine, a student who is divergent is unable to inform parents when staff and other students are targeting them because they are different? What are their options? For those of us who were students of color in the 60s and 70s integrating all white schools, administrators, teachers, and staff were many times not our friends and some were our abusers. If you were verbally abused, bullied, beaten, or worse, some staff looked the other way. This reality of constant sustained maltreatment is a fact of public school life that parents might understand intellectually but are not able to grasp viscerally. Their divergent preteen or teen must walk into that war zone each day alone.
In the fall of 2012 at Hillsborough County Florida’s Rodgers Middle School, special needs student Jennifer Caballero walked out of her gym class. We will never know why Jennifer’s body was found 6 hours later by divers in a pond.
The presumption made was that Jennifer’s disability influenced her behavior and she simply wandered off. But every competent professional I have questioned on the topic of student wandering, elopement, truancy, and absenteeism stated that if a student wishes to leave an environment there is something wrong with the environment not the student. In fact, a week later, a different Hillsborough school district teacher failed to report that another special needs student in another middle school was missing from her classroom. If these students were not neurodivergent, many things would come into question. Are these students being bullied or ignored in their schools? What is happening to drive this low tolerance of the school environment? I know among those of us who were many times forced to integrate all white schools, the abusive environment was too much, and because those in a position of power had no interest or regard for the abused pupils, students would simply cease attending. No one would assume that if a typical student walked out the student was the sole problem. Only in school districts where extreme poverty exists, the school has a disproportionately high nonwhite population, or the student is in special education is this somehow an acceptable answer. The Hillsborough County school district has the disturbing record of having three students, all minorities, all neurodivergent, die while in their care. Cases like these end up settled in lawsuits and forgotten. Meanwhile those critical factors in both the micro and macro cosmic milieu of the student preceding the catastrophic event are not addressed or changed.
As a student who survived things happening sometimes right under the noses of well meaning classmates and good teachers, I wonder how I can emphasize the depth of the crisis here. It isn’t just a crisis of one district school system. It is a crisis of attitudinal ableism that permeates the present education environmental infrastructure such that when harm comes to a student, the student, who is the victim, is blamed. It was not the fault of Elizabeth Eckford and the other eight black students who tried to attend high school that each day of their school year was a hell of angry white mobs hurling insults and threatening harm; nor that this maltreatment continued inside the school as well. It was the fault of the setting they were forced into and those who administrated it. Leadership sets the tone for how any student is treated in school. What you see in the picture of Elizabeth above is akin to what is faced by many disabled students in general and neurodivergent students in particular throughout their academic lives. The more apparent the difference the higher the rate of daily maltreatment. The “cover your public entity’s behind” approach to school administration does nothing to insure the welfare of students at high risk for victimization. When someone is noticeably behaviorally, intellectually, or physically different, isolating them from their peers will not help reduce bullying and maltreatment. Segregating them within the greater general population of students doesn’t help either. I want to end this cycle of secret harm that happens even when our children have made some headway towards inclusion by in some way shape or form entering their neighborhood schools as Henry Frost has. We need to understand that the Henrys of the world are paying a high price in trade for their insistence on justice and what is right. We need to step our support of them up a notch as a community. Doing so might be one of many ways to help prevent the deaths of students like Jennifer, while protecting the mental health and welfare of students like Henry and my own son Mustafa.
This is an example of an idea simmering in my head. A kind of roadmap maybe. When a new divergent student transitions into a neighborhood school there should be a transitioning plan in place for all parties involved (beyond the IEP of the student) whose aim is the safe absorption of the student into the academic and social life of the school. This could be done if stakeholders:
1. Acknowledge that both the first students to enter full inclusion and the fewest of any minority group will be gaped at, maltreated, and jeered at behind the backs of staff and administrators. So it falls upon the faculty, administration and staff to create bridges to introduce these students to the student body at large and ask for volunteer peer mentors to actively take on goodwill ambassador roles for students transitioning into fully inclusive environments.
2. Arrange mandatory team teaching and inclusive education training for staff and teachers that includes understanding and overcoming ableism, spotting red flags indicating bullying or maltreatment of divergent students, and a toolkit for transitioning to an inclusive classroom teaching protocol that mitigates bullying and fosters inclusion by example.
3. Create anonymous, safe, procedural protocols for reporting incidences of abuse against special needs students that protect faculty, staff, and students from retaliatory action from superiors or aggressive peer groups.
4. Create a route for either virtual or onsite observation of schools and classrooms where true full inclusion is working and auditing schools where it is not. Compare what is being done right with what is going wrong and include all shareholders as equal members in making inclusive schools safe academic environments for all.
I cannot ask Henry Frost how his year in his neighborhood school went. It is a personal thing that he may not be ready to discuss. Ever. I can only guess. I can only guess what may have been on Jennifer Caballero’s mind when she decided to leave the gym on the last day of her life. I can only imagine what was going on in Elizabeth Eckford’s mind when the picture posted above was taken on September of 1957. Having been their positions, I can only salute these brave souls, and pledge solidarity from a fellow survivor. And to brave Jennifer Caballero, rest in peace. We will remember you. Change is going to come.
Kerima Çevik is a legislative advocate and a parent activist for autism and social justice. She is an independent researcher who speaks at autism and disability rights conferences and workshops. She is currently promoting the concept of Pay it Forward activism and autism community building through resource generation, crowd funding of crisis mitigation, and leveraging social media. She blogs about autism, disability rights, and life with her nonspeaking autistic son at The Autism Wars (theautismwars.blogspot.com), intersectionality at Intersected (intersecteddisability.blogspot.com), social justice at Brave (overcominghate.blogspot.com) and is the founder of the Amplify Autistic Voices project at (amplifyautistics.blogspot.com).
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