Op-Ed: Missed Opportunities for Something Special in Special Education

Missed Opportunities for Something Special in Special Education

By Cheryl Poe | February 13th, 2020 

Cheryl Poe (pictured left) speaking at her event, 'Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline: Suspension Don't Work' on January 25th, 2020

Special Education is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied services in our educational system today as it relates to Black students. Researchers have spent decades exploring the negative aspects of special education on our Black children, but rarely do we hear how to use the services to support the needs of Black students and parents. 

I am a Black woman in my late 40’s who received special education services in elementary and middle school. I have also raised two sons with disabilities who received special education services throughout their entire secondary education experiences. I was able to secure services that supported their learning and social differences. My children were able to graduate high school, (my oldest graduated with honors) and attended college. Was it a struggle…Hell yes! But their education was worth the fight. It is a civil right and is a fight worth fighting. 

Without looking at the success of Black students who receive special education, despite our rightful critiques of the services they receieve, we miss out on an opportunity to make sure our children have all the tools needed to thrive and be successful. 

 The Foundation of Special Education

The history of special education has roots in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. It provided a foundation for the 1975 federal law now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

During the Civil War era, it was considered to be a criminal act for an enslaved person to learn. Not until after the Civil War did communities of freed Africans emerge and thrive, under the protections in the 14th amendment. This amendment provided for citizenship, equal, civil and legal rights to enslaved people. However, southern states were the first to develop laws that would require Blacks and Whites to remain separate.

First, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 section 1981 started the process of assisting former slaves to achieve. This was the genesis of civil rights laws intended to help former slaves. In 1896, the Supreme Court decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson ruled that separate-but-equal facilities were constitutional and many states used this to establish segregated schools. The schools developed for “colored” students lacked the resources and financial support, and books and supplies, if any, were often the discarded materials from the white schools. Then, in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education argued that Black children have a right to equal education and that segregated schools were unequal, harmed Black children, and denied them protection under the 14th amendment. This law coined the phrase “separate but not equal.” 

The Brown decision paved the way for other groups of people, in that it enforced the provisions of the 14th amendment, which guaranteed equal protection for people as a “class” such as race, gender, and disability. 

The 1970s decisions in the Pennsylvania Assn. for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia challenged state laws that allowed states to deny education to a “class” of students. Students deemed to have behavior that disrupted the school and classroom environment, or students whose intellectual abilities were too low, were either excluded from school or sent to segregated centers. These cases argued that children with disabilities have a legal right to education and training for free with non-disabled peers. After PARC and Mills, Congress launched an investigation into the status of children with disabilities and found that millions of children were not receiving appropriate educational services, which lead to the enactment of Public Law 94-142 in 1975, also known as The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. This “Act” included many of the checks and balances and “procedural safeguards” designed to protect the rights of children and their parents today when advocating for children with disabilities. The last amendment of this act was on December 3, 2004, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

We need Black families and the Black community to acquire an understanding of their rights under IDEA and become their child’s most prominent advocate. Parents and the school system are supposed to work as equal partners creating an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for the student. IDEA authorizes parents to reject and appeal a child’s placement or services if they don’t believe the offer of services is appropriate. At any time, a parent can remove their child from special education programs and refuse to allow the school to bill Medicaid for special education services. The school district can not place a child into special education unless the parent authorizes the initial identification process and eligibility.   

IDEA requires that school districts ensure that individualized special education services and related services are designed and developed to meet a child’s unique needs. School districts are legally obligated to provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education  (FAPE) for children with disabilities. FAPE includes providing a child with an IEP that clearly identifies a child’s areas of strengths and weaknesses. Goals are developed to teach the student skills to address areas of weakness, which include social, emotional and behavioral needs. 

IDEA also gives parents rights called procedural safeguards. Procedural safeguards provide that parents have a legal right under IDEA to:

  • Have all the paperwork, evaluations and IEPs explained to you for understanding. 
  • Review and inspect a child’s educational records.
  • Participate in an IEP meeting at a time that is mutually agreeable to the parent.
  • Obtain an Independent Education Evaluation (a private evaluation completed by an expert in the community paid for by the school).
  • Disagree with the school district decisions.
  • File state complaints against the school district.
  • File a due process hearing against the school district.

Black parents are less likely to use their legal rights to fight school districts according to a 2019 U.S. Government Accountability Office-GAO report. I see this in my work as a special education advocate. As a result, districts know that they can get away with offering Black students ineffective and inappropriate educational services. School officials assume their decisions will go unchallenged, which allows them to construct a system that labels Black children as unintelligent, dangerous or socially maladaptive, instead of seeing our children as having unique learning needs. America’s public education system continues to thrive on maintaining structured oppression, in which the dominant group sustains power by targeting an structurally unengaged sub-group. Racism is the architecture of this system. 

Brown v. Board of Education, Pennsylvania Assn. for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia, are court cases that changed the landscape for children who America has always marginalized. There are newer definitive court cases that allow parents to seek legal redress against a school district for not providing the services that meet the unique needs of their child’s learning differences. We need Black parents to be a part of the special education advocacy community. The Black community needs to be at the table, leading the conversation about areas of research that investigate the oppressor’s use of power that violate the rights of Black children receiving special education services. We need our state departments of education to actually “enforce” the regulatory provisions for students with disabilities and attorneys that will prosecute our cases. 

We need lobbyists and community organizations to fight against education regulations on issues such as restraint and seclusion that target and traumatize Black children with disabilities. 

We must demand that our children have the ability to access education. This includes children being able to be evaluated, properly diagnosed, and provided with an educational plan that reflects their unique traits and needs. Also, we must continue having conversations about education and, more explicitly, assistance to students with disabilities, including early interventions and interventions in general. Only then will the purpose of IDEA be achieved, “to ensure that all students with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.


Cheryl Poe has a M.A. Urb., Education. She is a Special Education Advocate, Coach, and Trainer based in Virginia.

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