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Saturday, November 20, 2010

On African American Boys and Special Education by Aurora Harris

Good Morning Everyone.

It is 9:00 a.m. and this morning at Marygrove College, there is a symposium taking place called "Boys of Color, Perilous Times." As an advocate for an autistic student in a Detroit Transition Center, I decided to conduct research concerning the often overlooked and/or forgotten issues and concerns pertaining to the population of special needs / exceptional African American males, aged birth to 26.

In the past, as a guest speaker on diversity and race relations panels, I shared with the audience the discovery of articles by researchers, parents, educators, and psychologists that studied or discussed the fact that African American male students are often labeled as learning disabled, dysfunctional, retarded, or impaired by teachers and psychological teams.  In addition to that fact, many children born with disabilities do not experience "early detection" that includes testing and diagnosis early enough...detection that puts parents and guardians on a life long journey of seeking and providing medical, educational, social, and economic supports.

Concerning Autism and Autism Spectrum, and, not having early detection,  I shared my own story. My family member was not diagnosed until he was almost 7 years old by the school. When he was three years old I watched him, wrote down the behaviors I saw, and drove to Wayne State University to search for information that matched the symptoms. When I took him to various doctors, clinics and psychologists, and told them, "I believe he is autistic," I was told, "He has too many behaviors. He is too young to be given diagnosis." He was placed in Emotionally Impaired classrooms until someone in a school area office found his file and called me to let me know that he was too far overdue for an IEP. After I had met with three schools and their teams to bring into compliance the IEP's, I finally received a proper diagnosis of Autism.

From not receiving early detection, it was up to me to keep advocating for my nephew. In my case, a school psychologist or social worker who saw his file collecting dust on desk... a person who remembered our names and took a chance to call the phone number in the file, was what led to my nephew getting a proper diagnosis.  Other information that I shared with the audience concerning African Americans and Autism came from ( ) .

When we talk about the historical treatment or regard of African American boys, if they are not born with a special need /disability, it appears that they are assigned one. If they are born with a special need / disability, then they are forgotten or rendered invisible after being cast into the systemic and institutionalized socio-economic net of factors and myths that prevent parents or guardians from gaining access to the supports that they need. I mentioned myths because in an effort to understand what my family member experiences,  I find the myths in the information that I collect concerning autism and autism spectrum disorder. It is through these materials... articles, studies, and websites, that I get to see what the common myths are. For information on learning disabilities and myths see the Introduction to Learning Disabilities at the National Association of Special Ed Teachers website at

As some of our parents in Detroit know, the parents of children and students with special needs / disabilities along with their parent involvement efforts are often excluded from discussions and conferences that explore the plight of African American males.  The discussion of African American male experiences in K-12 special ed and adult transition centers are often non-existent, unless you are attending a group meeting or conference that is specifically geared to this population of students.

While reflecting on how African American special needs and general education students are excluded, I remembered being in graduate school and being a part of two African American Male conferences.  I was a facilitator at a conference that was held in Detroit at Greater Grace Church by one of my colleagues, Dr. Jelani Jabari of Pedagogical Solutions. The other conference was held at Eastern Michigan University. I also remembered talking to other educators and students about some of the things that keep African American males (with and without special needs/ disabilities) from achieving and how we could increase the educational opportunities of special needs students.

One of the things that I remember from one of the conversations was how parents or family members are often blamed for not participating in their male student(s) lives or they are blamed for creating a situation at home that "leads to" non-disabled African American male students being diagnosed or labeled disabled, cognitive or emotionally impaired, or having any level of mental retardation, or autistim. I could not believe that I was hearing that one's family dynamics or social setting is the sole reason that creates a biological or physical disability or impairment after a child is born and goes off to school. In my world, a child that acts out one or two times does not suddenly become biologically impaired, mentally retarded, or autistic because two parents or one parent are considered or judged to be poor, the working poor, illiterate, or undereducated.

I mention this because in 2010, as I embark on my journey with DPS- WRESA Special Education Parent Advisory Committee members to locate the parents of special needs / disabled students in the Detroit Public Schools District, I have found on several occasions that I am faced with continued statements of blame, bias, discrimination, disdain, and exclusion directed at parents, guardians, and special needs/ disabled students.  To be quite frank, when I ask, "How can we find the parents?"  I am told things like, "The parents are special ed folks themselves," or "The parents are ignorant, illiterate or mentally impaired themselves,"  or " Special Ed is for gifted and talented only." As an advocate, my continued response is, "Every and All parents of special needs / disabled students do not fit those negative descriptions" and" If Special ed is believed to be for gifted and talented or excellent students only, then what happens to my child and others who do not fit that description?" In many instances, I  receive a blank stare or silence as a response.

At this time I would like to share with you an article from educator Pedro Noguero called "The Trouble with Black Boys" (  ). The article in its entirety can be found by clicking on the link. The article discusses many of the factors that keep African American males from achieving in school. For example, Dr. Noguero stated that:

A vast body of research on children in poverty shows that impoverished conditions greatly increase the multiplier effect on risk variables (i.e. single parent household, low birth weight, low educational attainment of parents, etc.).(23) Poor children generally receive inferior services from schools and agencies that are located in the inner-city, and poor children often have many unmet basic needs. This combination of risk factors makes it is nearly impossible to establish cause and effect relationships among them. For example, research has shown that a disproportionate number of poor children suffer from various sight disorders.(24) Throughout the country Black children are over represented in special education programs; and those most likely to be placed are overwhelmingly Black, male and poor.(25) However, the disabilities experienced by children are often related to poverty, rather than a biological disorder. For example, because poor children often lack access to preventative health care, their untreated vision problems are inaccurately diagnosed as reading problems and as a consequence, large numbers are placed in remedial and special education programs.(26)

The situation in special education mirrors a larger trend in education for African Americans generally, and males in particular. Rather than serving as a source of hope and opportunity, schools are sites where Black males are marginalized and stigmatized.(27) Consistently, schools that serve Black males fail to nurture, support or protect them. In school, Black males are more likely to be labeled as behavior problems and less intelligent even while they are still very young.(28) Black males are also more likely to be punished with severity, even for minor offenses, for violating school rules;(29) often without regard for their welfare. They are more likely to be excluded from rigorous classes and prevented from accessing educational opportunities that might otherwise support and encourage them.(30) 
* Source: Nouguero, 2002, In Motion Magazine,

While the plight of African American males is the subject of the day, as a reminder to conference, symposium, or group discussion planners, I say: " Be inclusive. Don't forget to include in future discussions our special needs / disabled students, their life and educational experiences, and the parent involvement experiences of the parents and guardians. "

Aurora Harris

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