Building Safety for Black Youth Living with ADD and ADHD
by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji
I recently caught up with Leroi Newbold, a bad ass teacher working in the Toronto District School Board doing amazing work with youth. This interview I did with him focuses on how Black youth living with ADD and ADHA are being impacted by ableism is schools and transformative solutions.
Shabina: Can you introduce yourself and the work you do?
I’m LeRoi Newbold. I’m a community organizer with Black Lives Matter – Toronto, a parent, and an educator at the Africentric Alternative School at Keele and Sheppard in Toronto. On a daily, I teach Grade 1. I’ve taught Special Education and have taught in a “behavioral” classroom in the system. I work with Black kids who are struggling with being educated in a system that is oppressive, and I try to share some tools with them about how to resist in that system, or how to be successful through understanding how that system operates.
I am the co-founder of St. Emilie Skillshare in Montreal, which began as a skill-sharing organization to provide free studio time and photography/silkscreen lessons to people living in of South-West Montreal, and queer/trans *BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour). I am the founder and director of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto Freedom School, which is an arts based program to teach Black Liberation, political history and political resistance to young Black children (4-10 years-old). We especially focus on Black Liberation work done by and to support Black *cis women, queer, and transgender people, poor Black people, Black people in prison, and Black people living at the margins of our communities. We teach kids how to organize, how to use arts to communicate, and how to fight back against police violence and oppression.
I am on the steering committee of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto. So….we support people who want to speak out about police murders of their family members, and police violence. We also try to create space for Black artists making work in Toronto, hold systems accountable for state violence, encourage people to rely on each other for safety instead of police, and support alternatives to traditional schooling for Black kids etc.
Shabina: What is an IEP and how are Black youth impacted by them?
An IEP is an Individual Education Plan. On paper an IEP is a seven page document that is written to outline how a child is going to get support over the course of a year in the Special Education system here in Ontario. The IEP outlines accommodation, which are things that a child might need to be successful in school like extra time on exams, different exam formats, condensed work etc. In some cases it outlines modifications, which is when a child’s whole curriculum is altered so for example, a child might be enrolled in Grade 4, but according to their IEP, they are working on elements of a Grade 2 curriculum as a point of departure.
On paper an IEP is a collaborative (so written together) by parents, classroom teachers, Special Education teachers, and principles. IEPs are in theory positive because they are personalized and student based. They outline a student’s strengths and needs, and the idea is to use a student’s strengths to address their needs. So for example, an IEP might stipulate that a child is very strong in music and that those strengths should be used to address their need to develop stronger reading skills or skills in mathematics. IEPs are also technically documents that hold teachers accountable to a plan for how to address a student’s needs, who may need support academically or even socially/emotionally.
The problem with IEPs is sometimes they are in fact not collaborative documents. Sometimes they are documents that teachers write and ask parents to sign without even properly explaining what they are. Sometimes they are documents that confuse parents because a child’s report card is reporting on their progress on their IEP instead of progress in the classroom. For example, a parent is seeing A’s on a child’s report card, but not understanding that their child is working below their Grade level. Sometimes IEP’s, are documents that criminalize kids and put families in danger because the IEP states that 911 should be called when a child does a certain behaviour, even though the child is 5 or 6 years- old. Sometimes IEPs are a problem because they lead to an actual lack of accountability. For example, a child may never fail a grade in school, but might remain on an IEP that says they are working at a Kindergraten level while they are enrolled in Grade 2, and then again while they are enrolled in Grade 3, and then again while they are enrolled in Grade 4. There is a lack of processes of accountability for teachers to ensure that the plan written in the IEP is met and that the child learns the things the IEP says they’re going to learn.
Shabina: Can you talk about some of the barriers set up for Black youth living with ADD, ADHA and other ‘behavioural disorders’ in the public school system?
One barrier is that ADD and ADHA are often treated as behavioural disorders. ADD/ADHA are not behavioural disorders. ADD and ADHD affect the executive functions of the brain. So in an educational setting, a child might need support directing their attention to a particular task or instruction. What a child does not need is escalating punitive measures related to the struggle they have with focus or attention, and therefore their tendency to get up and wander around or “distract” other kids. Punishing a child for the executive functions of their brain is very violent and very ableist.
This can be exacerbated by the fact that Black children are often read as defiant in a way that is not appropriate. In “Educating Other People’s Children” Lisa Delpit writes about the way white teachers tend to give verbal directives. She writes about how white teachers tend to give verbal directives in a way that is very passive aggressive (Ex: would you like to read a book? Ex: Is that where we put the scissors?). For Black children whose parents speak to them in very direct ways in their up-bringing, passive aggressive ways of speaking and interacting can be very confusing. Black children will often take what is being said at face value, and respond by saying, “No, I don’t want to read a book.” And then the child will be read and labeled as defiant even though they are just being honest. Passive aggressive verbal directives can be an even bigger problem for children who have communication based learning disabilities or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) because passive aggressive communication can be hard or impossible to understand.
Another issue for many Black communities and families is that education has been used as an instrument of colonization. So because of this, parents and families don’t trust the education system here even though education is a priority for Black families. There is also a breadth of research to suggest that Black communities have diminished trust in the health care system because of racism, mistreatment by physicians and having received substandard health care. Because of this, diagnoses for Black children with disabilities like ASD or ADHD might happen later in life or not at all. It is very hard for parents to effectively collaborate with teachers around things like IEPs when there is little or no trust there.
Shabina: How do you see the school-to-prison pipeline affecting Black youth with disabilities?
There has been a shift for people from talking about the school-to-prison pipeline to actually talking about schools as carceral (jail like) spaces. The case of a 6 year-old Black girl who was recently handcuffed at school by police in Mississauga clearly demonstrates how schools can act as carceral spaces for Black kids (especially Black kids with disabilities). A 6 year-old was handcuffed by police at her school because she was having an outburst, and potentially punched her principal. The child was 6 years-old, so weighed less than 50 pounds. For an adult principal (who is an authority figure within a school), being punched by someone who weighs less than 50 pounds and is 6 years-old might be surprising, but it does not present a threat to safety. When police arrived on scene the child was banging her head against her desk, which suggested that she was in emotional distress. It is likely that the child needed support processing her emotions, and that maybe she needed attention (maybe a hug) from an someone who cared about her and whom she trusted. The fact that the child had apparently had many incidents such as this, suggested that she may have needed ongoing social/emotional support. Instead, the police were called. Instead of de-escalating the situation, the police then handcuffed the child by her wrists, as well as by her ankles. This was an act of excessive and humiliating violence, and one that will be potentially traumatic for a very young child. What leads an adult principal (trained to support children) to seek the assistance of a police officer (whose job is address crime) in calming down a 6 year-old child is anti-Black racism.
In 2008, Toronto Police Services implemented something called the SRO (School Resource Officer) program. The SRO Program is part of TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy). TAVIS is a program that was implemented to curb gun violence by increasing police presence in specifically designated areas of Toronto, which included many Black neighbourhoods. The SRO program specifically placed police officers in a number of schools across Toronto with the goal of improving relationships between youth and police. By 2011, about fifty schools had School Resource officers, including a large number of schools in majority Black neighbourhoods, and including not only high schools but elementary schools (serving children from 3 and a half to 12 years-old). This means that Black children increasingly have police present in their schools, and police brought in to assist with conduct issues and conflicts between students and between students and teachers. This affects Black children in many ways.
This affects Black children and youth psychologically. They may wonder why it is a necessary to have a police officer present in their place of learning to survey them constantly. It affects Black children in terms of increased violent incidents with police. We remember the case of Spring Valley High School where a police dragged a teenage Black girl out of her desk and threw her against a wall. It affects Black children with disabilities because Black students with behavioural “exceptionalities”/disabilities are often the ones being suspended and going through other punitive processes at school. It affects Black children with disabilities because they are then at an increased risk being referred to Ontario Youth Corrections due to their behaviour at school. It affect Black children because youth are one of the fastest growing prison population in Ontario, and so are Black women.
Shabina: Can you talk about some transformative models used to implement disability justice within a classroom to keep Black youth in particular safe, nurtured and humanized?
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense created a school called the Oakland Community School, and the school did not use punitive measures such as detention, suspensions, expulsions, or even timeouts. Instead they had something called the Youth Justice League. Through the Youth Justice league, youth (in the presence of an adult) would be responsible for addressing conduct issues that occurred in the classroom. For example, a young child who did not do their homework would go to the Youth Justice League for what they called “course correction”. The youth would ask the children why for example, they didn’t do their homework. The child would then outline the reason why they didn’t do their homework. The youth justice league would suggest ways for the child to correct the issue. They would ask the child what support they needed in making the correction. This is an example a transformative justice model because the Oakland Community School transformed the circumstances in which education took place. It transformed dynamics of power so that Black and Latinx communities decided what kind of education was appropriate for their children. It transformed dynamics of power in that it gave opportunities to youth to experience the same power as teachers (decide on course content, co-teach lessons etc). In an event that a conduct issue arose it gave power to children in terms of being accountable to each other rather than an authority figure. They were given a chance to talk about their level of engagement in what they were learning, and being given support to address their own behaviour. This is crucial for children with disabilities because punishment is not appropriate when your what is seen as inappropriate behaviour might happen because of a cognitive disorder or something else beyond your control. Disabilities justice means that transforming the spaces that we are part of to be accessible and sustainable and to prioritize people with disabilities. People with disabilities cannot be honoured within an educational institution that corrects atypical behaviour through punishment, isolation, violence, or humiliation.
Shabina: How can teachers stand in solidarity with Black youth living with ADD and ADHD?
1.Teachers working within the system should recognize ourselves as an arm of the state, and therefore an arm of state violence. We must, wherever possible, intervene in the routine intervention into and harassment of the Black family by police and Childrens Aid Society.
2.Nerotypical people and neurotypical adults must take leadership from people with disabilities in how to transform our classrooms and educational spaces into spaces that are accessible.
3.Educators must respect, love, and share power with Black families, students, and communities
Leroi Newbold is a parent, community organizer, and educator and curriculum designer. Leroi is inaugural staff and Grade 1 teacher at Canada’s first public Africentric School. He organizes on the steering committee of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto and is the director of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto Freedom School.
Shabina is a queer mixed race weird witchy lady from Guelph who is into community organizing and revolution.