Mom Fears Her Autistic Son Is Being Abused at School. District Does Nothing.
School just got back in session, but one school district in Northern California already needs a lesson in how to create a welcoming and safe environment for Black students with disabilities.
A 5-year-old Black student with autism and speech and language impairments suffered for months, including suffering injuries that needed to be treated by a hospital, all because of the inadequate oversight of Hayward Unified School District’s staff. In a time when Black students are regularly pushed out of classrooms for discipline and other subjective criteria, being Black with disabilities creates a unique and even more troubling set of problems that many school districts fail to adequately address.
As outlined in our letter to the school district, in April 2018, E.E. moved with his mother from Inglewood and started at Helen Turner Children’s Center in the Hayward Unified School District. Within a month of E.E. arriving, it became clear that E.E.’s teacher was not creating a safe environment for E.E., which would ultimately lead to physical injury and missed class time for E.E. — the only Black student in a classroom with other students with disabilities.
Shortly after E.E. started school at the Children’s Center, he came home with scratch marks on his shoulder and, unlike his normal behavior, he was irritable at home. He also began wetting the bed. E.E.’s mother, Linda, immediately notified his teacher and observed a class to try to pinpoint the problems. Linda observed a teacher’s aide aggressively push E.E.’s hand away as he reached for art supplies in class. Linda also observed that E.E.’s teacher paid very little attention to E.E., which is different than what his behavioral plan required.
Linda was rightfully troubled, so she notified E.E.’s teacher right away that she had continued concerns regarding her son’s treatment. The teacher, however, responded that she had not noticed any changes in E.E.’s behavior. Shortly thereafter, E.E. was rushed to the emergency room from school and had to get stitches after falling off the monkey bars and hitting his head. But his ordeal didn’t end there. E.E. continued to come home with bruises and scratches while at school. Linda feared her son was being abused at school.
Only after Linda wrote another lengthy email to Hayward Unified did the school district claim to investigate the incident. But the school district summed up the problem as a “lack of organization” in the classroom. Linda still fears putting her son back in the hands of this school district. According to Linda, this hostile environment isn’t an isolated event for Black students with disabilities in Hayward Unified. Another Black student with disabilities faced a similar problem in the school district less than a year prior to E.E.’s arrival.
More generally, Black students with disabilities face a myriad of issues when they arrive at a school district. Recently, the ACLU released a report that showed that Black students lost nearly five times the amount of instruction of white students nationally due to out-of-school suspensions. When that is coupled with the fact that students with disabilities are more likely to lose instruction time than students without disabilities, it is clear to see that being a Black student with disabilities requires intentional support from the school district. E.E.’s neglect and physical abuse were avoidable, and the school district should not create additional barriers to his success.
The school district’s actions, or lack thereof, violate federal and state law, which is only compounded by its failure to take multiple steps necessary to correct those problems. Instead, it ignored clear signs of how the school district failed to fully implement a required individualized educational program (IEP) for the only Black student with disabilities in the classroom. E.E. deserves an education, but because the school district refuses to follow E.E.’s IEP, he’s being pushed out of school due to the unsafe conditions of his learning environment that the district continues to ignore. That’s why we wrote a letter reminding the school district of their duties to E.E., students with disabilities, and Black students.
To be sure, some school districts vow to create a better environment for students with disabilities once they receive a complaint from parents, but that is not the law. In California, for instance, school districts have an affirmative obligation to combat discrimination based on race and disability. And the school district must create a safe environment for all students.
E.E. and all students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate education in an environment that will help them thrive. A parent should not have to beg a school district to pay attention to her child and to monitor a classroom. Here, the school district completely missed the mark and shirked their legal responsibility by ignoring parent concerns and student physical abuse.
Our letter is a warning to Hayward Unified that E.E., and all Black students with disabilities, should be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve and that the law requires.
Abre' Connor is a staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California.