As students in the D.C. metropolitan area, particularly those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, slowly readjust to the classroom environment, no one knows how the pandemic will affect life in the classroom.
This rings particularly true for special-needs students, many of whom have suffered from significant learning loss in the virtual environment. For local education attorney Taalib Saber, such circumstances, if not mitigated early, will more than likely culminate in the mass suspension of special-needs students.
“The majority of the time when a student is suspended or expelled, it’s for disruption and disrespect. Because of their voice and the nature of the stereotypes, they get sent to the office,” said Saber of The Saber Law Firm, a law practice based in Greenbelt, Md., that specializes in education, civil rights, personal injury and wrongful death.
Saber, a millennial and practicing attorney of nearly a decade, told The Informer that he’s often tasked with challenging the suspensions and expulsions of his young clients, primarily by reviewing their Individualized Education Programs, and determining whether schools are providing accommodations for their disabilities. He recounted having to raise parents’ awareness about how schools’ denial of such accommodations might lead to an episode that mars a child’s disciplinary record.
“If a child gets removed from the classroom and sent to the principal’s office, it can be deemed a suspension,” Saber said.
“The unfortunate truth is that parents don’t have much of a clue about how to tackle these issues. As it relates to special education, they become knowledgeable in it, but if you take a parent who might be overwhelmed, it’s arduous for them to be versed in the law.”
Trouble From All Corners
In Maryland, one in eight students is designated as having special needs, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. While members of this group are subject to the same school discipline policies and procedures as their peers, administrators must first make a determination that the alleged offense isn’t linked to the student’s disability.
Education advocates contend that suspensions among special-needs students and children of color haven’t subsided, despite efforts over the last two decades to curb the trend.
In the months before the pandemic started, a report compiled by the Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that special-needs students and students of color represented anywhere between 25 to 50 percent of school suspensions, even though they might have composed a smaller proportion of the school population.
The report said such school suspensions often result in repeating a grade or entering the juvenile justice system.
Even so, parents and students frustrated by technological issues and lack of face-to-face interaction during the pandemic clamored for opportunities for in-person learning, despite concerns about contracting COVID. Much of the tug-of-war, as was the case in other cities and states, centered on how best to balance competing priorities.
That’s why school districts in the D.C. metropolitan area emphasized special-needs students during the return to in-person. Last fall, some District public and public charter schools opened spaces for special needs students, while Carroll County allowed nearly 170 of their own to return to the classroom, with plans to steadily raise the cap.
In March, Montgomery County placed special-needs students, along with those enrolled in technical programs, on a hybrid model. Prince George’s County, one of the last Maryland jurisdictions to open physical spaces, did so after pressure from parents of special-needs parents and English language learners.
The Saber Firm Looks Toward the Future
Saber, also a Pan-African activist, filmmaker and author, plans to take the Saber Law Firm to the next level and position it as an example of using one’s education to affect change and achieve self-determination.
Earlier this year, the Saber Firm released a promotional calendar that commemorated Black holidays and provided legal tips. Saber also expressed plans to not only expand the Saber Law Firm to D.C., North Carolina and Georgia, but ensure that it becomes an institution that provides opportunities for junior associates to practice the law with an African consciousness.
“I gained my consciousness in law school when I saw the impact of assimilation [in] people who wanted corporate counsel or government jobs,” Saber told The Informer.
“My professor told me that all of these students were being groomed to be employees, but they’re not being groomed to work for themselves. Having your own brings sovereignty so you don’t have to worry about conforming to [the standards] of a certain people.”