Marcus* is eleven years old. He loves to cook and has an excellent sense of humor. He’s patient and kind with younger kids and has terrific attention to detail and symmetry. Like many Black children in Minnesota, especially those with disabilities, Marcus’s school experiences have been rough.
“Marcus is biracial, and he doesn’t look disabled,” says Carla, Marcus’s mother, who is white. “Because of his disability and the color of his skin, people make assumptions based on stereotypes of Black boys and men. They don’t see that his behaviors are secondary to underlying issues.”
Marcus has a primary diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder and other disabilities and learning challenges. He functions socially and emotionally at about half his chronological age. He did reasonably well in kindergarten and first grade, but things began to fall apart in second grade.
“Why does everyone want to get me in trouble Mom?” Marcus asked. “I try to say something, but nobody ever listens to me.”
Unlike earlier teachers, Marcus’s second grade teacher didn’t have the skills or patience to work with him. The school changed special education managers three times, and the stability and consistency Marcus needed to make progress wasn’t there. In November, the school asked Carla to pick Marcus up at noon every day. November through April, he was on half-day school.
“It’s hard to dismiss the racial component,” Carla says. “I saw other kids, white kids, at school with even more challenges. I had to wonder, why is their kid welcome and mine isn’t?”
The school has an obligation to provide all students with a full day of appropriate educational services. Carla repeatedly asked the school about North Education Center (NEC), a more restrictive setting where Marcus could receive specialized services.
“They kept telling me they didn’t have the resources to serve him,” Carla recalls. “Every time I asked for a more supportive environment, the principal said it was too expensive. It was really frustrating.”
Third grade was worse with multiple suspensions directly related to Marcus’s disabilities. Carla spoke with the teacher, the principal, special education staff, and the district director of special education. Despite her best efforts, Marcus was out of school for over seven months with no services at all. Carla called the Minnesota Disability Law Center (MDLC) for help.
A Case of Racial Bias
“I was definitely concerned about race impacting this case,” says MDLC Staff Attorney Joshua Ladd. “I regularly see cases of increased incidents and suspensions involving Black students. But this was a rare case where the kid was just thrown away and forgotten by the school. It was very upsetting.”
Ladd called the school district’s director of special education, who immediately agreed to find a solution. Eventually, the district agreed to all the demands that Ladd and Carla set forth. They also agreed to provide compensatory educational services to make up for the school hours that Marcus had missed.
“If Joshua hadn’t been present to lay out the school’s legal obligation, I think the battle would still be going,” Carla says. “I’m grateful for the advocacy, but sad that it takes an attorney to get action taken.”
Making up for Lost Time
Marcus entered fourth grade at NEC, a setting where the staff is knowledgeable and understanding about differences in learning. They are trying to make up for time lost, but also repair the damage done by so many negative experiences in the school setting.
“The district sat on their obligations until we demanded them through legal actions,” says Ladd. “Cases like these are a huge deal for parents and in the life of the student. Individual cases are one way of changing system-wide problems.”
In Minnesota, Black students make up 11% of the student population, but 38% of school suspensions. Students with disabilities (14% of the population) received 41% of all suspensions and expulsions. The numbers represent individual children like Marcus who are not receiving the educational services they are entitled to by law.
“I don’t think people realize how much racism and racial injustice there is, even in elementary schools,” Carla says. “Having a disability and not being white does not bode well for kids in suburban school districts. Josh understands that, and he was committed to ensuring the school was accountable and made changes to support my son.”
*Name changed to protect client identity