‘If You Make That Choice, He Will End Up in Prison’

In a new piece for Mother Jones, teacher Anthony Conwright addresses the overrepresentation of Black students in programs intended to help kids with social-emotional challenges — which he describes as a form of segregation: 

“The United States guarantees 7.2 million students with disabilities an equal education. But the system is broken. For this package, we spoke with students, parents, teachers, and advocates about the dire state of—and efforts to fix—programs for students with disabilities. You can read all the stories here.

When Shiloh told me about being restrained by white administrators at his Denver public school, his face was offscreen. I would shy away too—I was a stranger on a Zoom screen asking him questions about a traumatic event. Occasionally, parts of his shirt or curly afro made it into the frame as he sat beside his mother, Lynne, a mental health therapist, her eyes tender and focused on him. I asked, ‘What did they do to you that you didn’t like?’

‘Hurting me,’ said Shiloh, age 10. ‘There was this one time where they had to pick me up and put me on their shoulder.’ . . . . 

‘I failed him,’ Lynne said. ‘I brought him to the place that was harming him. I specialize in neurodivergence. I have an education, I know the system, and I still couldn’t protect him.’

Later in our call, I asked Shiloh if he felt he was treated poorly because of his race. ‘Mm-hmm,’ he hummed. I asked, ‘How did the way you were being treated make you feel about being Black?’ Shiloh said, ‘Kind of bad. Like everyone else was kind of better than me.’

Shiloh’s school told Lynne that he was cursing, kicking, locking himself in a closet, and throwing objects in the classroom. Once, he walked out of his classroom to shoot spitballs onto the ceiling and walls of the boys’ bathroom. Lynne says school officials began alluding to placing him in an affective needs center—a program for students with severe social-emotional issues, where they’re separated from the general-education population.

Lynne knew she was coming face-to-face with a well-documented but alarming pattern: Black boys are much more likely than other children to be diagnosed with behavioral or intellectual problems, and they’re overrepresented among students receiving disability services under the Department of Education’s Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Black students are more likely to be identified with an emotional disturbance than all other students with disabilities.”

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