Disability Attorney Says Florida Education Fails Underserved Students

As election day approaches, Florida educators and civil rights activists hope voters will prioritize education as a key determinant of this state’s ability to build equality and prosperity. To do so, lawyer Stephanie Langer, an attorney with the nonprofit organization Disability Independence Group, Inc. would like to remind voters that students of all demographics can have disabilities. But those who belong to other vulnerable populations, such as low-income students, students of color, and English language learners, are among the most affected when states fail to adequately represent them in the data they collect to determine whether a school is hitting its key performance indicators.

That’s especially true in Florida, the last state in the union to receive federal approval for its implementation plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal law that governs how states must provide all students with equal access to K-12 education.In its approved ESSA plan, Florida will now have two systems for holding schools accountable for their performance:

  • The first is the already existing A-F system, which is how most people in the general public, as well as many policymakers determine a school’s level of success.
  • The second is a new method called the Federal Points Index, which will measure a school’s performance by taking into account the specific performances of the aforementioned underserved groups.

This subgroup data will be reported separately and will not affect a school’s report card grade. As a result, critics say that data could easily go under the radar, making it hard to access, and thus hard to improve conditions for these students.

Q: Tell us more about your work with Disability Independence Group (DIG).

A: I am an attorney here in Florida at Disability Independence Group, which is a nonprofit advocacy center providing advocacy, training,  and legal representation for people  who have disabilities and their families.

Q: Are you surprised that the dual grading system in Florida’s ESSA plan got approved?

A: This is nothing new in the school system in Florida, it is just kind of repackaged. What I see is this is another way to say that the state has lower expectations for these groups of students. All the research that exists out there proves that when you have lower expectations you have less teachers asking questions to students, you have students feeling less involved, it is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You are setting this groups up for failure and actually creating a bigger separation between these groups or identified groups.

Q: Can you talk about how these issues are exacerbated for students who fall under one of more vulnerable categories?

A: Miami is sort of unique. We have a large Hispanic population that does not seem to be a minority in some respect. But in the migrant community, which you see up and down the state, you will see a greater disparity or greater impact.

We know that when you have lower expectations, you have lower performance, reaffirming an unconscious bias. We see this manifest in how discipline is implemented against these populations, in images on the news and in literature that students are exposed to, which often depicts Black children and Latino children as more violent or more mature.

Teachers ask less questions so they do not have as many opportunities to get the right answers. Teachers aren’t as patient with them. These kids are disciplined much harsher and more often than other children for the same misbehavior, there’s less interest in seeing them return after they’ve been expelled, and then you see a higher dropout rate and lower graduation rates for certain populations. You see that permeate our society because we have more dropouts, more arrests and suspensions among these students, who then are less productive members in their communities.

It is not what I think our public education was designed to be like. I think it goes back a little bit to the testing. But Florida has always been pretty behind. We are still a southern state, with deeps roots of segregation and racism. We were one of the last states to desegregate.

Florida’s attorney general, who then became a Supreme Court Justice, wrote an amicus brief against the decision in Brown vs Education. Then, as our Supreme Court Justice, he prevented a lot of things from happening sooner. In fact, even today some of the northern parts of the state are still under desegregation orders.

We are behind. We don’t fund our schools well, we have one of the lowest per-capita per-student ratios in the country. Things are skewed in how we train our teachers, how we pay our teachers. It becomes the perfect storm.

Then you add on top of that these disparities, lower expectations and unconscious bias and it creates a very unfriendly and unforgiving system to these populations.

Q: What are the most common disabilities in the state of Florida?

A: We recognize 14 categories of disabilities in Florida. The rates of deaf and blind kids are low. The largest disability is probably autism, although it would likely be dyslexia except we don’t recognize that as a disability. These are the 14 we recognized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Deaf or hard‐of‐hearing (DHH)
  • Developmentally delayed (DD) (Ages 3-5 only)
  • Dual‐sensory impaired (deaf & blind) (DSI)
  • Emotional or behavioral disabilities (EBD)
  • Homebound or (HH)
  • Intellectual disabilities (InD)
  • Language impaired (LI)
  • Orthopedic impairment (OI)
  • Other health impairment (OHI)
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Specific learning disabilities (SLD)
  • Speech impaired (SI)
  • Visually impaired (VI)

In fact, I think where we see the biggest disservice is kids that have reading deficits that can be clearly fixed, if we had reading teachers or reading interventions earlier. We lose a whole crop of students in the third grade if they fail the FSA, which represents the first time that they catch these reading deficits. Most of the kids that are losing have what I call invisible disabilities—the  reading deficit, low levels of ADHD but not a traditional autistic kid but a higher functioning autistic kid and kids with behaviors that stem from reading deficits, ADHD and ASD.

What I see is that they start to get frustrated. Either they are not reading as fast as their peers or they just can’t cope anymore. By the third grade they hit a wall because they can no longer compensate for their deficit. You will see kids that start to misbehave because behavior is a form of communication whether is appropriate or inappropriate. Those I think are the most vulnerable kids, and especially if you are a minority because they will discipline you more often and more harshly. You are then disciplined in your behavior rather than your academic deficit.

It is frustrating to be on the outside and looking in when you know that if the system had done something for these kids in kindergarten, you would not have this behavior now. Once these kids are 10 years old, five feet tall, and not so cute anymore, they start getting disciplined like grown-ups, and that is where you see the beginning of school-prison pipeline.

In the state of Florida, we have kids—usually without some kind of mental illness—being arrested at 5, 6, 8 years old for having melt downs at school, throwing their papers or materials, and on rarer occasions for hitting their teachers or peers.

If a student is arrested for hitting their teacher, it becomes a felony—no matter the reason. If a student hits a teacher because the teacher grabbed the student to physically remove the student from the classroom and the student hits that teacher, the student can be and often is arrested for a third degree felony.

Battery is just one of many crimes that are enhanced if they occur on a school campus. So there is a whole group of students with reading deficits and learning disabilities, where the learning deficit is not caught, until they start becoming behavior problems.

Q: This must be a big eye-opener to people who are still trying to wrap their heads around the disproportionate number of minorities in the school to prison pipeline.

A: Florida is making them harder and harder to find. The way they are reporting public information is harder to find.

I think what people don’t know is that when a child enters the criminal justice system, their disability becomes irrelevant. A disability is generally not considered a factor, but we are  fighting to keep kids out of the justice system because their disabilities are often relevant to their crimes. Our jails are filled with kids and grownups that have diagnosed and often undiagnosed disabilities.

That is why I disagree with having police in schools because police are trained to arrest students for crimes. If a student hits a teacher, the police officer will have probable cause to arrest that student.

If the student is a “known trouble maker” then the schools will use the police to remove the student from the school. It’s easier to arrest the student than address his needs.

What the police do not look at is the fact that the kid is autistic, he is frustrated, the fact that his only form of communication is to strike out. There is all this back story that is not considered. That’s it, now the kid is in the system with a felony. Children are fingerprinted, photographed, DNA-collected, sometimes handcuffed and transported in the back of a police car, held in a facility. It is very traumatizing. For all kids, but especially young children.

Q: So the more Florida’s school ranking data conceals information students in these vulnerable groups, the easier it is for them to be thrown into these greater injustices.

A: Yes, they put these kids in segregation programs and  segregated schools and then they are able to essentially write them off after a certain point—separate, completely separate schools or completely separate programs within a school. For example, my kid’s middle school has an EBD program within the school. The kids with emotional and behavioral difficulties (EBD) are kept in a separate wing of the school and the kids in the rest of the school are not allowed to even walk through the wing where the EBD classes are held.

The EBD kids eat lunch in that wing and are never integrated into the other populations of the school. We have compulsory education until age 16 after that they never go looking for you again. It also impacts foster kids, or any kids that do not have a strong advocates.

Plus, many of their parents are poor. They are just worried of getting by pay check to pay check, and the last thing they are worried about is whether or not the school is following the procedural safeguards to give these kids the tutoring they are entitled to.

The school does not tell parents all the information available.  So they will say, you need to sign this paper or we won’t be able to help your kid. So the parent trusts the school to do the right thing—the parent does not know that the kid is entitled to be integrated with other kids, or that the kid is entitled to tutoring or speech therapy and the parents blindly trust that the school and teachers have their best interest in mind and the child’s best interest in mind, but that is no always the case.

The schools do not do a good enough job discussing the issues with the parents, and what the resources are that are available and coming up with a solution that fits that individual student.

Those are the kids that are ignored, the kids that do not have the voice to advocate for themselves. In Miami, the rich leave the public-school system if they can. You are left with a public-school system full of kids that are unable to advocate for themselves or do not know how to advocate, and so there is no incentive for the district to change.

Attorney Stephanie Langer, Disability Independence Group

Q: If you were to encourage people to think about certain things on the ballot, what is your message to Florida voters right now?

A: I want candidates with a strong track record for education and a commitment to funding teachers. How we educate our educators in Florida is also a problem. Not only do we need to invest our school infrastructure, we  need to invest in how we educate our educators.

We need to have the same expectations for all our students, even the disabled ones who may learn a little slower than their peers. I have noticed that these students are being placed in classrooms with lower expectations and once they fall behind they are never able to catch up and be reintegrated into higher functioning classrooms.

We are essentially tracking students and I believe that this tracking, if looked at, would be found to be illegal. I worry however there is no appetite within our court system to address it, so it has to be done in the legislative level.

Our Florida Department of Education does not enforce the laws that are on the books. We need people that are more committed to putting education as a high priority in our state. if we don’t we will not be able to compete with other states or with other people in the world.  We will create generations of people who will be more dependent on their communities rather than contributing to their communities.

– Author Julienne Gage is the senior web content manager for Progress Report. 

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This week, states submit their final plans to the Department of Education about how they’ll measure student success based on rules set in the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. […]