By BARRINGTON A. MORRISON
The alarmingly high suspension rates of Black males and their disproportionate placement in special education programs has been and continues to be a crisis in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). The jaw-dropping statistics published by the Toronto Star on Friday, March 22 on suspension by race and the demographic snapshot shows the ominous array of hardship that besets this disadvantaged group.
As a Black male special education teacher with 15 years of experience teaching students with exceptionalities, particularly those classified as Learning Disabled (LD) and Mild Intellectual Disability (MID), I have had a front row seat in observing, evaluating, assessing and instructing hundreds of students, specifically Black males, whose faltering and suffering in the education system has impeded their education and created a toxic environment in which the Black male is seen as a bête noire to be feared and despised.
The teaching of these young Black males in special education classes has left a firm imprint on me as a Black man. My empathy for these boys not only stems from consanguinity, but also as a professional in the field I am deeply embarrassed. My constant interactions with these young boys and their parents in the social and emotional context of schooling offers an important and intellectually exciting challenge as I observe the ubiquitous issue of race and gender in all its complexity within various school environments.
My observation and reading of the research in education tells me that Black males’ referral to special education are not necessarily based on academic deficits, but on non-academic factors that are highly subjective and ambiguous. The intersections of race, gender and cultural biases remain significant in the referral to and placement of Black males in special education.
Teachers’ perceptions of Black male students influence what conclusions are often drawn about their gender and behaviour. For example, when the same behaviours by Blacks and Whites are differently evaluated, Blackness is relegated to deviance and Whiteness is normalized.
In Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, A.A. Ferguson posits: “Whereas teachers attributed the misbehaviour of White boys to boys being boys and sought to edify them, they pathologies the misbehaviour of Black boys and sought to punish them”.
This has resulted in the alarmingly high suspension rates in the TDSB.
The marginalization of Black male students in the school system and their lack of exposure to rigorous instruction, post-secondary opportunities and accessibility to general education can produce devastating results for these boys, their families and the community. Among these are high dropout rates, suspension and referral to special education, drug addiction, mental health problems and the irresistible possibility of being sucked into the vortex of the school-to-prison pipeline.
The nature and scope of the problem surrounding the suspension and disproportionate placement of Black males in special education programs, particularly in the urban schools, is deeply rooted in a society with a history of overt and covert racial discrimination. The persistent state of Black males in special education programs seems to suggest that racism and bias in schools have been operating in very subtle and insidious ways.
The good news from my review of the literature on education is that it’s possible to successfully educate all students, including Black males, to their fullest potential, thereby mitigating the factors responsible for their disproportionate representation in special education. The fact that some schools manage to do so already is evidence that there exist a possibility of altering the life-chances of these young Black males.
The schools control enough of the variables necessary for all students to master the Ontario Curriculum Expectations. The late African-American Harvard Professor, Ron Edmonds, stated with unabashed aplomb:
“We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”