Segregation Is Still Alive And Well in Huntsville, Alabama

On Sunday, March 8, 2015, at 2:00, Merrimack Hall will host Birmingham-based attorney Deborah Mattison in a free workshop to discuss special education law. Ms. Mattison is our state’s leading expert on IDEA, the federal legislation that protects the rights of children with special needs to an education. Ms. Mattison has successfully represented thousands of families in Alabama in their fight to obtain the education their children are entitled to receive. If you have a family member with special needs – school aged or not and regardless of what school district you live in – I urge you to attend this workshop. If you are an attorney, school administrator, teacher, aide or other service provider, I urge you to attend as well. It is my hope that this workshop will lead us into a grassroots movement to reform special education in our community.

The school system in my hometown has been under a desegregation order since 1963. The original order, issued by the Department of Justice, was intended to provide “fairness to black students.” Fifty-two years later, a Consent Order has been negotiated and was released to the public on January 26, 2015. I can’t begin to imagine how many lawyers, how much money and how many bureaucrats have wasted who knows how much time on this situation but worse than that, I can’t stand to think of how many African-American children have paid a price for our community’s inability to do the right thing.

The Consent Order calls for the redrawing of zone lines, the closing of several schools and the opening of new ones…all good things for our system as a whole. But who will bear the brunt of these changes? Students with special needs will. Our school system is finally taking steps to insure equitable treatment to racial minorities but how is it okay to take those steps to the detriment of another minority? If it’s not okay to discriminate against one group, how can it be okay to discriminate against another? And why don’t I hear a public outcry about this?

I am in no way suggesting that the struggles of one minority group are more or less important than those of another. But when we examine Civil Rights, I believe we should look further than race, ethnicity, sexual preference or gender.

Didn’t the Civil Rights Movement teach us that discrimination against other people for any reason is unacceptable? If someone is in the minority, does it really matter which minority box they check? Discrimination is wrong…period.

I was a child in Alabama during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up in a world that tolerated discrimination and injustice. I don’t want to live in a world like that again, nor do I want my grandchildren to live in a world where it’s okay to treat anyone unfairly. Thanks in large part to generational turnover – the bigots are finally dying off – Alabama is doing better, although we still have a long way to go.

I’m encouraged by the younger generation. Even here in Alabama, they are more open and accepting of those with differing views, lifestyles and life experiences than my generation ever imagined. But while we have to continue to advocate for equality across racial and gender lines, while we have to continue to teach tolerance for those with different religious views or different life experiences than us, we MUST make sure that the Civil Rights of ALL minority groups are protected.

So I’ve been pondering these things…segregation, inclusion, discrimination, diversity and all of those other politically correct buzz words we hear all the time. We go to “Diversity Training Workshops,” we are told that diversity in the workplace is important to business success, people pay lip service to the idea that we should celebrate diversity but it seems to me that most of the time, people are talking about diversity based on gender or race alone. I decided to see what google has to say about what diversity actually means. I found dozens of definitions, most of them variations on the following:

Diversity is ethnic, gender, racial, sexual preference and socioeconomic variety in a situation, institution, or group; the coexistence of different ethnic, gender, racial, sexual preference and socioeconomic groups within one social unit.

Isn’t there a group of people left out of this definition? Shouldn’t diversity include the coexistence – and equal treatment – of people with differing ability levels? A few of the definitions I found mentioned people with physical disabilities but not one said anything about people with intellectual disabilities. I wonder why and I wonder who it is that decides which categories of people are included in diverse groups.

According to the 2010 US Census report, 19% of our population has a disability. According to the “Quick Facts” page of the same Census report, 13% of our population is African-American. Both are in the minority but people with disabilities represent a larger percentage. It’s not okay to discriminate on people based on race so why is it still okay to discriminate against people with disabilities – in our schools, in the workplace and in our communities?

Many students with special needs in my community are forced to use a separate entrance when they enter and exit their school each day. Anytime we make rules that segregate one group from everyone else, that’s discrimination, isn’t it?

Many children with special needs in my community are bused from one end of town to another so they can be warehoused and isolated together, away from the “typical” students, in classrooms with inadequate resources and overburdened teachers. To me, this is veering dangerously close to what we did to African-American children in 1963. 

Many children with special needs in my community are forced to rotate schools every two years. Parents are told this is because children with special needs require special bathroom facilities or need access to changing tables. But I suspect the reason for this is to control test scores, rotating students who will presumably score lower on standardized tests than their classmates to mitigate the potential for earning a “failing school” status.

Many children with special needs in my community are forced to charge schools year after year, with no warning and with no recourse…even though many of them are less able to tolerate change…so why is no one demanding that the same 50-years’ worth of resources be spent on insuring the equal treatment of children with special needs? They are every bit as vulnerable and every bit as valuable as any child in any minority group.

And why in the hell does it have to take 50 years to find a way to treat every child – regardless of skin color or ability – with the dignity and respect they deserve?

Maybe you’re not as outraged as I am because you don’t know anyone with special needs. Maybe you don’t have a dog in this fight and don’t know why you should care that people with physical and intellectual disabilities are being mistreated. Maybe you think your “normal” family isn’t impacted by this diversity oversight.

Here’s why you should care: for every $1.00 we spend on interventions and therapies for children with special needs, we save the taxpayer $7.00 over the course of that child’s life (source); and with the autism rates currently at 1 in 63, you could very well have a child or grandchild with special needs in your family one day.

But I hope you will care because EVERYONE has value. I hope you will care because real diversity means that everyone is included. Your family may be average and your family members may be “normal” but I hope you will care because we are all more alike than we are different. I hope you will care because we should hold ourselves accountable for how we treat those who are least able to advocate for themselves.

Someday, your brand of “normal” could be in the minority. Maybe it’s only when we find ourselves outside the accepted norms that we can understand that there’s no such thing as “normal.” Normal…is a dryer setting.

So what do we do? March on Washington, sign petitions, sue our school board and write to lawmakers…sure, all of those things should happen. In the meantime, maybe we could do one simple thing…reach out our hand to someone who is different from us. That could be the beginning of real diversity.

14 thoughts on “Segregation Is Still Alive And Well in Huntsville, Alabama

  1. Again, I ask the question as a dad of a daughter with Down Syndrome – when is the special needs community going to come together in full force and hold Huntsville City Schools accountable? This is a very good blog post and I agree with everything written, but even among the special needs community there is some division between those who can afford to get an attorney like Deb Mattision (we’ve used her) and those who can’t. Also those who have the means to get better for their children do, and those who cant accept whatever they are given.

    • The reason is because families separate themselves by service provision . . CP, intellectual, mental illness, Autism, etc. There is a Facebook page that is not associated with ANY organization and not specific to any disability . . owned and operated by families . . until we come together in ONE place, and this could be it, nothing will change! Check out Alabama Family to Family . . nothing you post will be deleted because it offends or is not agreed with! There are several family groups out there, but this one crosses all disabilities and does not an affiliation with any organization. If families keep creating more sites rather than supporting one, we will continue to divide and get no where!

  2. You hit the nail on the head, Debra! And our family is looking forward to the upcoming workshop as well.

    Responding to Kiti’s comment, a few years ago, some of us parents tried very hard to create a unified voice for families with special needs to work with Huntsville City Schools through the Huntsville Special Ed PTA. While there was a lot of interest in the community to positively influence the school system, it was a very uphill, and one way, battle to communicate with HCS leadership and we eventually lost drive and got on with taking care of our children. And you right in pointing out the problem of division. We are easily divided. Those with loud voices are accommodated and thereby silenced, and the issue of finances always complicates matters. I think Debra has started down a good path, and hopefully we can all learn something from the upcoming workshop that will move us toward speaking with a unified voice – and making a positive difference for all.

    • Joe I remember that group. My wife and I were a part of it. Then a funny thing happened. The group was disbanded and reformed as the Huntsville Special Ed PTA and that was it. It died on the vine. We went to a couple of meetings but after that, nothing. Isolate, divide and conquer. Make each family fight on their own and feel like they cant win – and then make them go away.

  3. what Wardinsky did a couple years ago by pulling special ed classes from each school and centralizing them into 3 schools only was illegal! I fought the school system every year and sued twice…the school system will do everything illegal until they are forced to reverse their illegal action. Rounding up all special ed students to place in one, two, or three schools is illegal. No school system can round up Muslims and place them only in a few places. But they did that to students with special needs. My daughter graduated so I did not want to lead the fight…but I kept telling parents of younger children that this was illegal and they should fight it…either no one wants to rock the boat or they don’t have the time or energy bcuz this could have been changed. The HSV city school system will not back down to reason…they have to be sued. The ACLU should have been brought in to repair this wrongdoing. It is a disservice to all children, each school should allow their typical students exposure to students with special needs, it helps build well-rounded future citizens.

  4. All of Alabama schools are failing. I’m a parent of a child that is schooled in Huntsville, Al. I feel that the schools are over crowded to many children to one class room. The teachers are not experienced enough to teach our children. Most don’t show up for work on special events such as magic city classic. Go to the teacher attendance log!!! Every school have call out! From adult professional teachers that don’t show up for work. How are you supposed to teach or lead…..if it’s not a good example? ?? They treat these kids like animals with security. The Security is the worst there not trained properly or need retraining! The pick and aggravate our children. Instead of up lifting them. If you’re not in it to pass success and build a great mind why do it????? I’m say no one has heart and patience with our children they are basically living in an over populated school where they are the minority! Being treated like prisoners! In an American prison!!!!!! In Alabama it lots of segregation going on its a lot more issues too! I have several problems with Huntsville school systems! I’m going to start posting videos if I don’t get change. Then have no choice but legal action.

  5. Debra,
    Thank you again for being our loving and trusted voice .
    I feel positive changes are just within our grasps .
    Together, we can DO THIS !!
    Ready for the road ahead !

  6. I LOVE THIS!!! Mrs. Jenkins I cannot thank you enough for what you have provided for people like my sister (its Toni Roths son by the way) What you do is incredible and everyone on this planet should be more like you! THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!!

    • The seminar is free..we are asking people to call and make a reservation to insure that we have adequate seating. Please call 256/534-6455 to reserve your spot…we have room for 300 people. Hope you can be there!

  7. 9 of every 10 children diagnosed with Down Syndrome is exterminated by induced abortion. Those children are considered as no more than garbage by our society as a whole. How can our culture ever come to appreciate each of these unique, irreplaceable human beings if it remains acceptable to discard them? Surely that would be the first discriminatory injustice to correct.

  8. I can’t speak about Alabama specifically, but one factor in play is that there are many parents who aren’t convinced that “desegregation” of their disabled kids is the way to go. They view separate schools and classes as safer and more nurturing, or in some way “better” and more “expert” than mainstream schools and classes. There is an allure to the segregated, “sheltered” life for parents of disabled kids, a promise of “special” care. It’s short sighted and, on average, an illusion. But if you’re full of fear for your kid, it’s hard to overcome. I’m not saying this is anything close to the most important reason for continued segregation, but about half of the parent bloggers I read have in some fashion chosen not to integrate their kids … and these are among the most savvy and engaged parents of the whole community.

    By the way, I am an adult who has had disabilities from childhood, and have worked in the disability field for over 25 years, but I am not a parent myself.

  9. I missed the workshop, and am only just now finding this blog. Thank you!! I was SO angry when our children were segregated into one school. I refused to sign the IEP agreeing to the change but I was so angry that I transferred him to the school where they wanted him to be. I was angry at the school that was all but demanding I sign that ILLEGAL IEP. (I understand the semantics, the IEP may not have been illegal but the segregation was, etc.) NOW, we have all received letters about an upcoming meeting (next week) to go over where our kids are going to be placed next year. I’ve been told, from a little birdie, that all of these kids are going BACK to their home schools. I suspect this is in response to many of you having already filed lawsuits, etc., but I cannot be sure about that. Well, great. Now we’re taking these kids away, AGAIN, from their familiar environment and shaking them up all over again. I am so angry. I’m not angry at the parents for filing lawsuits, that was the right thing to do. I’m angry that we are in this situation at all. How can we all come together to make this right? Or, is this about to be made right?? We were looking at possibly moving to Morgan County and I have discovered that they do the SAME thing. For instance, if we lived in Laceys Spring, our child would be bussed over 20 miles to Sparkman Elementary school because that’s where they have all of their special needs students. This is NOT okay. I’m at such a loss and feel so defeated. I’ve looked into private school “for middle class families” but really.. who in the middle class has an extra $600 per month to spend?? Perhaps before our insurance premiums and out of pockets doubled.. ugh.

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