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Malcolm (not his real name) transferred to the small, public high school I work at last Spring. I’m a Special Education teacher, and in addition to teaching biology, I’m also the Special Education Coordinator at my school. This means that when students transfer to my school, I search the Department of Education’s Special Education database (SESIS) to determine if they have disability classifications so that we can arrange to provide them with mandated services. Malcolm did indeed have a disability classification: emotional disturbance.

My years as an educator in New York City have taught me to take disability classifications with a hefty pinch of salt. The whole idea of a learning disability was born out of eugenics, and contemporary special education, while it is full of hard-working, well-meaning professionals and does a lot of good for many children and young adults, has been unable to shake its racist roots. Black students are twice as likely to be labeled as emotionally disturbed than their white peers. Black students are three times more likely to be labeled as having a serious learning disability than their white peers. I work within a racist framework of labels, tests, and laws, that too often tracks students of color into the school-to-prison pipeline, or deprive them of appropriately rigorous education, all in the name of helping struggling students.

Before we encounter a student, we are mandated to read their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a legal document that describes their current levels of academic, social, and physical functioning, academic goals for the year, and long-term education and employment goals. On the cover page of the IEP, is a list of questions that exemplify the dissonance between the laws governing special education, and the realities of the students we serve.


The first question, “Does Malcolm meet the criteria for one or more disability classifications?” – check yes. Then, “Does Malcolm require approved special education services and programs?” – check yes. Finally, “Is the determining factor one of the following: a) lack of appropriate instruction in reading, including explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency (including oral reading skill) and reading comprehension strategies b) lack of appropriate instruction in Math c) Limited English proficiency” – you must check no in order to select the student’s disability classification.


The intent here is clear. Students should not receive a disability classification if their difficulties are simply due to poor or inadequate instruction. But what about other factors that indisputably impact a child’s ability to learn? How about emotional trauma? How about food insecurity or unstable housing? How about insufficient access to quality healthcare? How about the implicit bias of teachers who are more likely to look for disruptive behavior in Black children than in White children? The first time I wrote an IEP, I read this list, thought about the student, looked at her school file, and checked yes. An error message popped up.


Malcolm’s IEP was out of compliance, over a year over-due, so on his first day with us, I met with him to begin to get to know him. Soft-spoken and reserved, he answered my questions but didn’t seem to enjoy talking about himself. He was self-aware describing his learning difficulties and explained that fights had led to multiple suspensions from a young age. He told me that his dream was to be a lawyer. He didn’t mention that East River Academy, the school he was transferring from, is the school on Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. His mom, in and out of the hospital, couldn’t attend the IEP meeting at school. On the phone, she sounded hopeful about Malcolm being back in a regular school but warned me that he was still dealing with the legal maze related to his incarceration and that he might have to miss school for his court dates.


She was right to warn me. In the Spring, Malcolm’s attendance was sporadic at best. The next Fall, he didn’t come to school at all. It was not until December that I was able to schedule a meeting with him and his mom. Malcolm was as I remembered, soft-spoken, with a shy smile. This time, he was also much less reticent. He talked about his experience at Rikers. He described how if he got into a fight, or got into trouble with a guard, he wasn’t allowed to go to class. That was why he was so behind academically. He talked more about his dream of becoming a lawyer. Now he felt like that dream was dead. He had been charged with a felony. He could never work as an attorney. On top of that, he was at least two years behind in high school. He would graduate at 21 if he was lucky. Being incarcerated had ruined his life.

I asked Malcolm’s mom what she thought. She talked about obstacles her other children were trying to overcome. She looked sadly at Malcolm. Unwilling to let the meeting spiral into hopelessness, I explained how his schedule was packed with credit-bearing courses, the supports he would get if he returned to school with us, the opportunities to gain experience in the legal field we could connect him to. Or, we could find a high school for over-age and under-credited students, that could help him graduate more quickly.


I don’t blame Malcolm for his lack of enthusiasm at my attempts to inject a sense of possibility into the conversation. He is aware that the school system and the legal system have conspired to dash his hopes and dreams. It will take a superhuman amount of hard work and luck for him to steer his life back on course. I wish that Malcolm’s story was unique. But in my seven years in NYC public high schools, I have known many students who have been caught in the web of zero tolerance. Most of them were Black. Most of them had a disability classification. Zero tolerance must end now.

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