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.

The State of Special Education, Part 3




Your comments, your stories, your fears and worries are flooding my inbox…and what I am reading is making me angry. What I am consistently hearing is:

  1. I’m afraid to speak openly about the issues I’m having with my child’s education.
  2. The Huntsville City School administration and board either don’t have policies in place or they don’t enforce those policies with any consistency.
  3. My child’s civil rights are being violated but I’m powerless to do anything about this.

Saying that a child’s civil rights are being violated is serious business. Unfortunately, it’s what I’m hearing over and over. In less than 24 hours, I received 203 messages from you…113 of the messages came from people who reported that they were either parents or teachers…and what resonated in each of them was that we are not treating children with special needs fairly in our school system.

Wikipedia says:

“Civil rights are a class of rights that protect individuals’ freedom from infringement by governments and private organizations, and ensure one’s ability to participate in the civil and political life of the state without discrimination or repression. Civil rights include protection from discrimination on grounds such as race, gender, national origin, color, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or disability.”

When I compare this definition with the stories I’m hearing, it sure sounds like the Huntsville City School administrators and school board have created a system that is violating the civil rights of the 2,800 children who attend our schools. Many of the messages I received asked me for a “Call to Action” or a “Next Step” but I’m not quite there yet. I’m going to share some of the stories I’ve been hearing with you and hope that your feedback will help me formulate that action item that we can all rally around.




I promised to protect the identity of anyone who left me a comment or sent me a message. It is interesting to me that 112 of the 113 parents and teachers who contacted me asked that I not identify them. What do people fear? Reprisals against their vulnerable children or push back from the school administration or further cuts to special education are on the top of the list.

Please read the comments that were posted directly on this blog. Here are some of the ones I received privately…send me your comments so we can figure out what a “Next Step” would look like.

Reader 1: “I’ve kept quiet as long because I’m a teacher in the Huntsville City Schools and honestly, I’m afraid of our superintendent. Other teachers I know feel the same way. We lost so many experienced and gifted teachers since he came here because they would rather give up their jobs than work for a man who shows such callous disregard for what’s best for our students. People are only focusing on the success he’s had with the budget but at whose expense? The children…especially the kids in special education. HCS is violating the rights of kids with special needs and parents have no option but to go along with it. I think a class action suit is the solution.”

Reader 2: “My child’s aide confided to me that she was told by the school that she was not to communicate anything with me…at all. She was not to tell me what happened in my child’s day, what my child ate for lunch, what my child did in OT or PT, how my child performed academically…she was not to tell me anything at all about what my child did in school. Of course, the aide continues to report what my child does each day.”

Reader 3: “Pulling children with special needs out of every school to house them in only two or three schools is illegal. First, it’s a shame because ‘typical’ students who are exposed to children with special needs learn great life lessons early on that help society later in life. The benefits of children learning and working together side by side as ‘typical’ students and ‘special education’ students is unilaterally beneficial. More importantly, however, segregating the special education population from peers is illegal. You cannot round up all the Muslims and put them in one of 2 or 3 schools. You cannot round up all the students who are on the free school breakfast and lunch programs and put them all into only 2 or 3 schools. The law does not allow rounding up any minority and placing them all into 2 or 3 schools only. Segregating special education students this way is federally prohibited.”

Reader 4: “My child’s school has been without an OT for most of the school year. The OT left and wasn’t replaced. When I ask about a replacement, I’m told that one will be hired as soon as the money is available and that it will be my responsibility to make up the OT sessions on my own, even though our IEP mandates OT as part of my child’s academic day.”

Reader 5: “My child was born in Huntsville and went to school in the city system through third grade until we were transferred last year to another state. I didn’t know there was another way to educate my child but he is now in a regular classroom with his typical peers and is thriving. In Huntsville, he was put in the resource classroom and I didn’t know I had any other options.”

Reader 6: “My child was put into the resource classroom for kindergarten. I asked why and they said it was because his IQ was lower than 59. He was never given an IQ test so I don’t know how they know what his IQ is but since he has Down syndrome, I didn’t question them.”

Reader 7: “I’ve sued the system and was able to get my child in our neighborhood school. The terms of our settlement prevent me from speaking about it so I can’t share information with other parents on how to get what they deserve. The school’s administration likes for us to sue them because then we can’t talk, they only have to redress a problem with one family and can go about business as usual. I guess other parents either don’t know their rights, don’t know they can sue or afraid to but it’s the only thing that works. It keeps everyone in the dark and keeps one family satisfied. Once we get what our child needs, we are afraid to tell other families because then they might take away our services next year and make us sue them all over again. It is exhausting.”


Please continue to share your experiences with me.  You can reach me at  I promise to protect your anonymity.

The State of Special Education, Part 2


Here’s another head-scratching situation for you to help me understand. There are about 100 school-aged children in my program (we serve a total of 403 children and adults) and they attend school in several different school systems in our area. Four of my students who attend Huntsville City Schools spend up to three hours a day riding a bus because their neighborhood school doesn’t have a resource classroom. Three hours is a long time for any child to spend on a bus but for a child with special needs, it’s an eternity. The first time this situation was pointed out to me, I thought of several remedies:

  1. Drive your child to school yourself.
  2. Move to a house closer to the school that is equipped to serve your child.
  3. Home school your child…there are no private or parochial schools in Huntsville that will accept children with special needs.

Simple enough, right? If the school in your neighborhood doesn’t offer the services your child requires, just move! If the bus ride takes too long, drive them yourself!

Oh, if it was only that easy … and if only the way we are treating kids with special needs in the Huntsville City Schools was fair.

The reason why some children have to travel so far to get to a school that’s equipped to handle their needs is because our school administration decided to consolidate resource classrooms.

And then they decided to bus children from one end of town to the other to get them to the newly consolidated resource classrooms.

And they decided to cut $7 million from our city’s special education budget to help make our bankrupt school system financially solvent. And they decided to fire most of the aides that serve those kids whose IEP calls for one, which means that kids with special needs stay isolated in the resource classroom.

And for some reason, they decided it was fair that 11% of our school population should be responsible for 61% of the budget cuts put in place in 2012 to get our schools operating in the black again (budget numbers and the calculations used to determine these percentages can be found here).

I get it … you can’t provide the services that some children need at every single neighborhood school. It’s unrealistic to expect that every school in our system should have all the resources it takes to educate children with disabilities but … if you judge a school system by how it treats its most vulnerable students, it’s my opinion that Huntsville would get an “F.”



Here’s an example: A family found out they were being relocated to Huntsville last year and began researching our school system to find the best school to serve their daughter, who has both physical and intellectual challenges. They narrowed down their choices based on all the factors you would expect – location, services offered at the school, housing costs, proximity to their jobs, etc.

They came to Huntsville to visit the schools prior to making the commitment of purchasing a home and when they went to the school that was on the top of their wish list, the principal personally said to them, “If you move into this neighborhood, your daughter will go to this school.” They loved the neighborhood, loved the school, found their dream home and bought it in April 2013. In August, two days prior to the start of the school year, they went to their neighborhood school to finalize the details for their daughter’s first day only to be told that the school was no longer able to meet their daughter’s needs and that she would be bussed across town.

I know that if I shared more details, it might make my case stronger but the parents are actively trying to get a better resolution for their child, which I don’t want to compromise. The bus picks her up at 6:30 every morning so that she can arrive at school by 8:00 a.m., and returns her home each afternoon at 4:45 … she’s the first one on and the last one off the bus each day. And yet she lives four minutes from an elementary school.

When the parents confronted the principal about this, the principal told them that while the situation is horrible, decisions are being made by school administrators in the central office, much further up the chain than a principal can control. School administrators have decided that there must be five children requiring services at a school before a resource classroom unit can be opened. Where did that number come from? Seems pretty random to me. We have 21 elementary schools in Huntsville but all of our special education students are bussed into two: Challenger Elementary or the Academy for Academics and Arts (our city’s arts magnet elementary school).

Parents are told that Governor’s Drive is the dividing line: If you live north of Governor’s Drive, you go to AAA, if you live south of Governor’s you go to Challenger. There are a lot of miles on either side of that dividing line. So, move closer to the school your child will be bussed to, right?

Well, for starters, have you tried to sell a house in the past few years? Easier said than done. And besides, our school system is making decisions in such an arbitrary manner, with no input from parents, with no opportunity for discussion and with no notice that I’d fear moving, if I was a parent, because those two schools could change next year … or turn into only one. If I had a child facing a 3-hour bus ride every day, I’d just drive them myself … unless I have a job.

How can we expect a parent to drop a child off at school and get to their own job on time if the school is 45 minutes from home, children can’t be dropped off earlier than 7:30 and they have to be at work by 8? The particulars of an individual situation can get us bogged down. The nuts and bolts of educating children with special needs are complex. The tools it takes to meet their needs are intricate.

The superintendent and school board have so much to consider when making decisions about the equitable distribution of resources in our system as they attempt to meet the needs of many different groups of children who require specialized learning environments and when they consider the number of kids they have to educate.

But children with special needs are not just a number … they are children, cherished by their families. When I think of the children my program serves, I see the faces of precious children who deserve our best and of the faces of their parents, who love them so.

I don’t have the answers but I wish our school administrators could at least acknowledge that I’m not talking about wheelchairs or diagnoses … I’m talking about children who are so much more than just their disability. What’s going to happen in five years, when those 1 in 68 children who are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders are school age? We don’t have the infrastructure in place to support kids with special needs as it is … what things will look like in five years is frightening.

I heard the superintendent of the Madison City school system say, at the 2012 State of the Schools Breakfast, “I believe we are moving toward a system where every student has his or her own IEP … where we educate children in a way that is best suited to them as individuals.”

I agree with him and if the estimates about autism are accurate, it won’t be long until the majority of our students will qualify for special education services so maybe school systems should start looking at what a system that treats each child’s education on an individual basis would look like. It’s my impression that Huntsville City School’s superintendent doesn’t look at children with special needs as anything but a number … and a problem.

I met him shortly after he moved to Huntsville and told him what I do. When I told him that I hated to hear that 10 of the families enrolled in my program had relocated to the city of Madison because they weren’t satisfied with Huntsville’s special education program, he said to me (paraphrased) … Good! Let Madison have them. Children with special needs are my worst nightmare. I never see their parents unless they are in my office, with an attorney, demanding something I don’t want to give them.

I was left to assume from this remark that the equitable distribution of resources to kids with special needs wasn’t going to be high on his priority list and his actions since then have supported my assumption. I wonder if it would be so easy for the superintendent and school board to make the spending cuts they’ve made if they just looked into the face of one child with special needs before they cut the funding that affects that child.

It looks to me like the board and superintendent only think of children with special needs as a liability … but they are so much more than that. Any decision regarding where a child will be educated should be a joint one, made by the administrators who use our tax dollars to pay for it, the teachers who have to institute it and the parents – who know and love their children better than anyone.

Yet, most parents tell me that they go into their bi-annual IEP meetings armed for battle because they have to go to war to get what their child needs and has a right to receive. 100% of the parents in my program tell me that the principal and teachers in their school are overworked, overburdened and are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given. They tell me the teachers and principals are as heartsick as they are over what we’ve done to the 2,800 children with special needs in our city schools (again, see here for verification of this number).

Where could more money for special education come from? I wish I had the answer. I always find it interesting that we rarely hear of cuts to an athletic program but arts program and special education are always the first on the chopping block.

I extend an open invitation to our superintendent and school board members to drop by Merrimack Hall any day of the week and meet my students – 403 people ranging in age from 3-64 – who have special needs.

A visit would at least illustrate for them that people with special needs are much more than numbers and deserve more than the bare minimum we have to give them. And a 15-minute visit to my program would also show them the tremendous benefit that typical kids receive when they spend time with kids who have special needs.

According to the Alabama Department of Rehabilitative Services, for every $1.00 you spend on educating a person with special needs, you save the taxpayer $7.00 over the course of that’s person’s life. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s our duty to provide kids with special needs everything we can and it saves us money in the long run.

Savings or not, I believe we have an obligation to do better for those in our community who cannot do for themselves because of their disability or special need … those special education students could have easily been my children…or yours.

How does it work in your community?

Do you have students that spend 3 hours a day on a bus so they can get to a school that has the resources they need?

Is there a more equitable way to distribute the costs of educating children with special needs?

Please share your thoughts! You can reach me via email at Your anonymity will be protected.