Photo of Anthony Washington standing in front of a street sign that reads "20th Avenue"

SPS Educators Confront Issues of Race and Disability as Students Return to Schools

by Ari Robin McKenna


As many students receiving special education services in what Seattle Public Schools (SPS) calls “intensive pathways” returned to in-person learning in early April, some local educators find themselves questioning whether their students will have improved opportunities for inclusion, or if the opposite is true. Supported by a federal law, which states that all students should learn in the “least restrictive environment,” inclusion requires that students with disabilities spend as much time as possible learning with their peers who do not receive special education services. While much attention has been focused on the myriad needs of students returning to hybrid, in-person learning, these teachers are concerned that inclusion of students with disabilities will be overlooked, and their need to be included will be unmet. 

During the pandemic, one terrible example of exclusion was discovered in SPS at View Ridge Elementary School. According to a story by KUOW, the principal, assistant principal, and other staff members seem to have thought the least restrictive environment for an 8-year-old Black boy named Jaleel was to lock him in a caged play area for hours at a time where he sometimes ate while sitting on the floor. Though state law requires any instance of “restraint and isolation” to be reported, there was no paper trail, and while Jaleel’s case may or may not be an isolated event, it brought to the fore existing questions about whether there was a tendency to exclude BIPOC students — and particularly Black students —  receiving special education services in SPS.

Joy Springer, a former middle and high school teacher who is now an occupational therapist (OT) at Jane Addams Middle School, a union leader, and part of an Education Leadership Cadre (ELC) who fields questions from other OTs across the district, broke it down for the Emerald this way:

”Black and Brown students are being put into these intensive service pathways, where they’re even more segregated from their peers. So they get dinged for being Black, and they get dinged for supposedly having a disability, and then they’re kind of shuffled off. They’re in a Gen[eral] Ed[ucation] school, but their classroom is hidden away from the rest of the school, they’re not really integrated, and they don’t have as much time accessing their peers. This really hurts them and it also contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. A lot of our students who end up in prison ultimately have a disability; the overrepresentation of youth disability in prison is astronomical.”

Photo of Joy Springer standing on the steps of a school wearing a "Black Lives Matter in School" t-shirt.
Joy Springer is an occupational therapist (OT) at Jane Addams Middle School who believes Seattle Public Schools would better serve Black and Brown students who are in intensive service pathways by ensuring these students are included in more general education learning situations. (Photo: Pharaoh Prim)

In the United States, if a Black child receives special education services at some point during their K–12 education, they are more likely to be arrested than not be arrested before the age of 28 (more than 55% of Black Americans with disabilities were arrested before they turned 28), says a 2017 report from the American Journal of Public Health.

Anthony Washington, who teaches in the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) intensive pathway at Garfield High School and Humanities at the Academy for Creating Excellence (ACE), told the Emerald that inclusion takes on extra importance for Black students in a city as white as Seattle is. Washington elaborated, “When you’re thinking about just being able to function on a daily basis in our society. Having the ability to be able to communicate, and understand and critically think about multiple perspectives, is absolutely vital to survival …The only way you can do that is experiencing other people, other perspectives.”

“Exclusion is extremely important … My kids [students] are segregated. I’ve called them political prisoners to try to get people to understand what my kids deal with on a day-to-day basis, and their IEP’s [Individual Education Program] relationship with the criminal justice system at any given moment. So inclusion can be the difference between the two. Figuring it out, having the perspective necessary to pick up on certain things, and being excluded, and feeling excluded, and following that path to where it leads — which is usually not positive.”

Photo of Anthony Washington sitting on the steps of a school.
Anthony Washington, who teaches in the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) intensive pathway at Garfield High School, sometimes compares the status of his students — who he feels are being excluded from their peers — to “political prisoners.” (Photo: Pharaoh Prim)

Though Washington says inclusion is especially important in Seattle, it also bears mentioning that the state of Washington is not exactly a paragon of inclusion. In fact, it’s the opposite. A 2018 National Council on Disability study titled The Segregation of Students with Disabilities concluded that, “Washington falls in the most restrictive quartile, including only 55% of its students with IEPs and removing 13% of students from general education 60% or more of the time.” The study went on to rank Washington 44th out of 50 states for inclusion.

Ilene Schwartz, director of the Haring Center for Inclusive Education, and a professor in the University of Washington’s School of Education, recently told the Emerald, “Inclusion is not an instructional strategy. Inclusion is a cultural shift.” She also qualified its importance for all students, saying, “What we know about inclusion is that students who have the opportunity to learn in an inclusive school do as well or better than those who do not — whether they are kids with disabilities or kids without disabilities.” She added that she believes that, “children behave better and learn more when they are in a diverse setting. I think we all are more challenged when we are in a heterogenous setting.” At the same time Schwartz underscores the challenges of remaining inclusive during the return to in-person learning; she also acknowledges that many students struggled with remote learning environments.   

Jacquline Thompson, formerly a one-on-one, Distinct instructional assistant (IA) at Garfield, is now a BRIDGES “job coach” at Rainier Beach High School. She recently expressed concerns to the Emerald about a return to in-person learning decreasing her students’ sense of inclusion — after some pleasant surprises with how remote learning has served many of her students. “With the Distinct kids, they are all being treated as that one unit. Everybody’s at home on their cameras, so it feels like you’re in a regular classroom — you’re not in this special class … when they’re not treated like they’ve got a real bad disability at all. It seems like the teachers are treating the kids better because we’re all together — as opposed to when we were all in the building and we’re all sanctioned: You’re over here, you take this kid to the lunchroom, you take this kid over to the track, and everybody’s all by themselves with this one kid, and that kid’s not getting included.” 

Jacqueline Thompson poses in front a park bench in front of a lake.
Jacquline Thompson, formerly a one-on-one, Distinct instructional assistant (IA) at Garfield, and now a BRIDGES job coach at Rainier Beach High School, is concerned that, in the rush to return students to in-class instruction, the fact that some students with disabilities have actually thrived during online instruction is being forgotten. (Photo by Pharaoh Prim)

Since her students returned on April 5, Thompson has been teaching in a room with other students receiving intensive special education services, but the general education population will remain separate from them, except while online. She laments that her students will no longer be as comfortable as they were at home and feels that being in a room with only other students receiving special education services in the intensive pathways program (including a one-on-one IA for each student) increases their sense of difference from the general education population.

Springer, who requires assistive technology to mitigate her own disability, agrees: “I’m scared of the narrative that remote learning is terrible and it’s not working for anyone — and it’s not working for any special education students. That narrative really concerns me because I have a lot of students who are doing better in remote than they did in person. Because now teachers will let them use their assistive technology; that’s not a fight anymore. Now they can leave and go to a quiet space in their home and use voice-to-text to do their work.

“You know, I have a lot of students who are like, ‘I miss my friends. I miss being in school, but I’m doing way better as a student in remote, because I can get up and get a snack. I can turn my camera off and jog in place while I listen to the teacher.’ Things they couldn’t do in a classroom. They can still engage in their learning and meet their own needs, do really well, and not get in trouble. Students aren’t being referred for discipline. They’re staying engaged in their learning way more than when we are in person. We need to keep that up when we return to in-person. So there is a lot that we need to learn from being remote that has been successful for students with disabilities, for students who are typically marginalized, because of this white, middle class-normed obedience culture that we’ve developed in schools.”


Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.

Pharaoh Prim is an artist who is dedicated to showing the side of Seattle not broadcasted. He is a photographer, a painter, and a musician looking to show the world what South Seattle can accomplish.

📸 Featured Image: Anthony Washington teaches in the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) intensive pathway at Garfield High School. (Photo: Dennis R. Wise)

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