It was the middle of my first and only year teaching Special Education at one of the lowest performing public high schools in the notoriously high poverty, crime-infested Garfield Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. I’d been struggling mightily with classroom management and student buy-in during my first three months, but after quite a few hard knock experiences, I finally began hitting my stride. After running a productive, synchronized classroom for 85 out of the 90 minute period, things were beginning to wind down when it really sunk in that a good student who’d been attending school regularly, had been absent for our last three classes.

“Janay, where’s Leo*?” I asked the young man’s sister, who was also in the class.

“He got arrested. I keep tellin' his dumb self about thinkin' he a hustler.” She replied in the tone of a frustrated mother at her wit’s end.

After class, I asked her when she expected him back in school and she said she was uncertain because he was still being detained.

I felt trapped in a daze, ruminating on the boy’s situation and that of another student who was attending his first class of the year because he’d just been released from a juvenile detention center just a week ago. Throughout the year, I received several classroom visits from probation officers and had to cooperate with both the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County Juvenile Justice Division after witnessing a sixteen year old student attack a teacher, which led to a violation of his probation and a court subpoena.

My mind really began to conceptualize the gravity of the situation. This was about so much more than finding inventive ways to teach remedial material to kids who were performing years below their grade level. As I watched students become entrenched in a legal system that rarely granted them any favors, it was a harrowing feeling to understand that students were losing their childhood innocence and embedding themselves into the all-too-common cycle of violence, poverty, crime and social isolation right in front of my very eyes.

According to a U.S. Department of Education study, only 8.6 percent of U.S. Public School students are classified as having disabilities that qualify them for special education programs. However, national estimates place the number of incarcerated juveniles with 'special needs' from anywhere between 28 to 70 percent. During a 1991 study done by the Illinois Department of Corrections, 51.6 percent of its juvenile inmates were said to have learning disabilities.  Subsequently, research demonstrates that anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of America’s adult inmates would qualify as special needs learners. 

The statistics also sing a very somber tune when it comes to special education, race and the Chicago Public School System. According to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) official website, 23 percent of the 609 students who attend the school I taught at are labeled as special needs. 97.5 percent of those students are Black. The other public high school that serves Garfield Park, which is 98.2 percent Black has classified 25.9 percent of its population in the Special Needs category. The neighborhood high school in CPS with the largest percentage of Black students (99.1 percent) has a 28.8 percent special education population. Conversely, the neighborhood high school in CPS with the largest White population (48.2 percent) only carries an 11.8 percent special needs population.

So why are there so many Black children in CPS’s Special Education system?

“There are a myriad of reasons why the African American special education population is so high, but the most common are poor parenting, poor teaching, and institutional bias,” says Victor Williamson, a professor of Special Education at Chicago State University.

“Due to the high percentage of teen pregnancy and parental incarceration in the African-American community, many of our children grow up in impoverished environments that are not conducive to promoting education as a way of accessing a higher quality of life. However, the school system also shares much of the blame due to some teachers erroneously assuming students are incapable because of their background, as well as the attitudes of certain elitist educators who deem children that frequently misbehave or are poor academic performers as special needs without deeper investigation of the root issues,” Williamson says.

Kevin Footes, a former CPS Special Education Teacher's Assistant who currently runs his own non-profit mentoring program, Transform a Life Foundation, says it is important for people and agencies that live and work in the community to invest additional time in students with special needs.

“In all of our activities, I make sure at least 25 percent of the kids are special needs. The community as a whole must be more sensitive to the needs of these students. It’s our duty to go the extra mile because as community leaders we are responsible for giving each child, no matter the label, the skills and support needed for lifelong success. If we don’t make changes soon, these kids are going to continue to plague the city with violent, criminal behavior,” Footes says.

Kimberly Bradley, a CPS Special Education teacher and case manager, agrees. Currently working at Cook County Jail’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center as a Special Needs Instructor, she has connected with multitudes of juvenile offenders ranging from the nonviolent to those incarcerated for murder.

“Cook County should not carry the sole responsibility of students failing to successfully integrate into mainstream society. It is important to acknowledge that parents, communities, schools, organizations, and agencies must be held accountable as well. These students are in desperate need of as many wrap-around services as they can receive,” she says.

Bradley also believes that youngsters must have the individual will to change their outlook, attitude and behavior in order to discover the benefits of a life away from the streets:

“I have witnessed opportunities presented to students to be productively reintegrated back into the community and they show little to no interest.  For example, there are summer job programs specifically available to juvenile offenders, but some of the students turn them down because they believe it doesn’t pay enough.” 

CPS has a program designed to give each student a career track post high school. However, once the student graduates, there is zero legally mandated follow up. Many teachers, me included, have failed to effectively implement these plans for each student on a consistent basis. In worst-case scenarios, teachers totally ignore them and completely fabricate the data.

As a West Side resident, I see some of my former students in the streets occasionally. Most say they’re doing well and staying out of trouble, but company they keep and the corners they stand on tell a different story. To my knowledge, at least five of them have graduated to adult imprisonment.

The taboos must end. The stigma of being “special” must be eliminated. Until families, communities, and educators are willing to face up and combat the problem as a unified force, this problem will remain understated, overlooked  and as destructive as ever to every core aspect of a healthy community.

*Students' names have been changed.