Keeping children with disabilities out of the school-to-prison pipeline

Ebony Townsend and her Father. Speaking of Justice Spring 2018
 Ebony Townsend and her Father. Speaking of Justice Spring 2018

For almost five years, Ebony Townsend’s school failed to provide accommodations for her disability, instead choosing to call the police and suspend her from her bus after she defended herself from a bully. With help from Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, which is funded in part by a Children’s Legal Services grant through The Florida Bar Foundation, her father was able to access an attorney who fought for Ebony’s rights.

By the time she was 10, Ebony Townsend had been bullied at school and on the bus for years, handcuffed and taken away from school in the back of a police car when she cried out for help, and suspended from the bus for 45 days. Profoundly deaf in one ear and painfully shy, Ebony also had learning disabilities in reading and math. None of her disabilities had ever been addressed by her Daytona Beach school, despite her father’s best efforts. In fact, she hadn’t even been properly assessed.

“I had been everywhere trying to get help,” said Ebony’s father, Anthony Giddens, a single dad who works as a dishwasher and prep cook at Cracker Barrel. Giddens, who arranges his hours so that he can be home when Ebony gets off the bus, had attended parent-teacher conferences, pleaded with the principal for help, and eventually taken his concerns all the way to the school superintendent. He had once gone to court to get a restraining order on a 9-year-old boy who wouldn’t leave Ebony alone. And he’d tried to get private attorneys to represent Ebony, to no avail.

“I took her out of one school, put her at another school, took her off of one bus, put her on another bus. I tried everything possible that a parent could do. I had no help at all. It was very, very stressful,” said Giddens, adding that it wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to receive multiple calls from his daughter’s by school in a single morning while at work.

Then one day, as he was driving down Orange Avenue in Daytona, he found he was in front of Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, and he remembered the civil legal aid organization had once helped his mother.

“It was like a sign from God saying, ‘You’ve been everywhere, but you haven’t been there,’” Giddens said.

Just 15 minutes after telling an intake coordinator his story, he got a phone call. Katie Kelly, supervising attorney for the Children’s Rights Unit, would take Ebony’s case.

Kelly’s work is funded by a $99,000 Florida Bar Foundation Children’s Legal Services grant. She is one of only a few attorneys in Central Florida who handles cases like Ebony’s, and hers is one of 14 varied Children’s Legal Services projects statewide that the Foundation supports with nearly $1 million in funding.

Kelly’s project specifically seeks to stop a pattern in which young students like Ebony are handed off to law enforcement instead of being provided accommodations or individualized instruction in accordance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Katie Kelly, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida

Katie Kelly, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida

“It was a textbook case of the school-to-prison pipeline. Kids who struggle – especially kids who are poor, black or disabled – are not given these services, and they end up in this pattern of exclusion, and expulsion through suspension. And when those exclusions don’t work, then oftentimes it rises to the level of kids being Baker Acted, which is an involuntary psychiatric hold, and arrested,” Kelly said.

“Ebony was not supported. She was not given appropriate supportive services. And it all rose to a level that they felt comfortable calling the police instead of asking for a guidance counselor for her, or instead of evaluating her.”

Years before, when Ebony was in preschool and kindergarten, school audiologists had reported that she was deaf in one ear, but the school never provided appropriate accommodations. Her teachers should have been using a lavaliere microphone, checking to ensure she heard instructions, providing written instructions, and having her sit at the front of the class. Also, even though Ebony had been failing in school, she had been administratively promoted to the next grade and had never been assessed for her learning difficulties.

Kelly saw to it that Ebony was evaluated through the school and that she had an independent evaluation. Those evaluations uncovered her learning disabilities.

Armed with this new evidence, Kelly worked with the school to develop an Individual Education Program (IEP) for Ebony to ensure she would receive the right kind of educational support. She also got her moved to another public school, where Ebony has blossomed.

“I remember getting her report card: three F’s, a D, and all of a sudden she goes to a new school: six A’s, one B,” Giddens said.

Ebony, now 12 and active in Girl Scouts, recently celebrated making the A-B Honor Roll.

“If no one had really taught you for four or five years, if people had just passed you along and administratively promoted you from grade to grade, and you really could only hear a part of what everybody was saying, you’re going to have gaps,” said Kelly, who worked in public education for 20 years as a school psychologist, administrator and special education teacher before she went to law school. “What we’re seeing now is, she’s catching up. She’s making tremendous progress, because she’s got this individualized instruction that’s helping her.”

Meanwhile, Ebony has had no behavioral problems at her new school and is not being bullied anymore.

Giddens, who broke down in tears the first time he met with Kelly, said he never understood why he couldn’t get anywhere with the school on his own.

“It’s crazy, because you would think that when you’re a parent, and you’re involved with your child, that’s what the school wants,” he said, adding that he’s grateful to Kelly, and to the Foundation for supporting Kelly’s work.

“I love Katie Kelly. I really do, because it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders to finally get some help.”

As gratifying as it is to see children like Ebony succeeding, Kelly does more than help one child at a time. She is advocating for multiple children through complaints to the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, and she provides advocacy training to groups like the Guardian ad Litem program and the Florida Department of Children and Families.

“I’m the luckiest person on Earth,” Kelly said. “I am eternally grateful for the support we get from Community Legal Services of MidFlorida and The Florida Bar Foundation.”

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