Recruiting Black Male Teachers in Special Education

Interview with Dr. LaRon A. Scott   

by Leroy F. Moore Jr.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: I am here with Dr. Scott. I have questions about your work, and your recently published paper. I want to begin with, why did you get into Special Education? And tell us about your graduate school experience.

LaRon A. Scott: So it’s interesting how I got into Special Education. I wasn’t planning on entering the field. I was actually entertaining going into law school when I stumbled on Special Education. And it really hit home, in a sense. My sister was diagnosed with an intellectual disability while I was in college. And my family was not equipped to understand what exactly that meant and how it would impact her life, how it would impact the family support for what she might need and our own dynamic. And so that got me to exploring what in this whole sense of the disability community, what it looked like, and what were the resources or lack thereof that was out there? And before you know it, my interest just took off and wanted to understand how I could obviously help my sister, but again, it began to grow further into how can I help others whose families are very similar to mine, who just don’t have the understanding of what this means?

So I graduated. I finished my Criminal Justice degree at Radford in 2002, and then I immediately took a job working at a private agency that supported students with disabilities. So combining my interests with understanding what was going on with my sister and working with this organization, I went back to school specifically—went back to graduate school at VCU, Virginia Commonwealth University—to study Special Education. I received my advanced degree there and went into teaching. And so those experiences were all meaningful. My experience in graduate school was, a good experience,  but I was the only Black student, let alone Black male student in my degree program. And obviously, I found that rather interesting as well, what that meant for me, someone who had to navigate those systems in the program alone from the vantage of being a racially, and this point gender, was a minority in the program. How do I navigate that alone? So again, that became an interesting facet of my background as well.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.:  Excellent background. Special Education started as to help students, but now it has turned into something else. Tell us your view of Special Education from the 70s to today.

LaRon A. Scott: Yes. Today, I really feel like there’s a little more attention given around the field of Special Education. But frankly, I guess the movement has not happened at the pace that I would have hoped for or had anticipated. Certainly, we are having more discussions about inclusion. We’re having more discussions about the support needs and adult outcomes of students with disabilities. We’re talking about their families. We’re talking about communities. We’re obviously talking about schools. And I think these were areas that lacked some exploration prior to the early 2000s. But again, I think there’s so much more that has to be done as a field when we’re talking about the policy surrounding Special Education. IDEA still needs to be reauthorized, and that’s a discussion that has been had for some time and clearly that has implications for the field. Obviously, what’s happening in school systems with more inclusion of students with disabilities that previously was much more controversial than what it is today. But we still don’t know the full impact. So we know the impact, but we haven’t been able to really contextualize that so that others understand what that truly means.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.:  Yes, I totally agree.  We all know that Black boys are overrepresented in Special Education, and your study looks at a lack of Black male Special Education teachers. Please explain your study, and what do you want to do with this study?

LaRon A. Scott: Yes. I’ll start by diving in.  As you said, Black boys are obviously overrepresented. Which there’s controversy around using that language, but I’m not afraid to. They are disproportionately represented, and the fact is whether discipline, or we’re talking about detention, we’re talking about being identified as having an emotional-behavior disorder, in Special Education in general. And when we look at the lack of representation in our schools, and we can start talking about General Education teachers, there’s already a short supply of folks who can serve as good educators, let alone good adult figures and good role models for these students. And then we funnel down, and we look at the lack of representation in the Special Education from the perspective of the educator, and we see that number is alarmingly low when you look at the number of Black students enrolled in Special Education.

And so my goal in paying attention and by no means am I suggesting that we need to funnel more Black students into Special Education, and therefore we need more Black teachers. It really means that before we get there, even before we get to having Black teachers in Special Education, we need to think about having Black people represented so that conversations can be had before they reach Special Education. But once they’re there, there still has to be a level of representation that happens so that cultural nuances and ways to navigate those spaces, students can have support there. Whether that is getting the academic, social, emotional support that they need to excel, but also what are ways that they can be allowed to have conversations that will allow them to move on and out of Special Education. I think there has to be representation there too. So again, the goal was to create a conversation and shine the light on a real alarming issue, in my opinion.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes. Can you discuss the curriculum of graduate classes in Special Education majors? I ask this because last year, I  was invited to co-teach my new children's book, Black Disabled Art History 101, and got a lot of pushback from the students who are graduate teachers in Special Education. So tell us the curriculum of Special Education in graduate classes.

LaRon A. Scott: I’m sorry. Did you say you got pushback?

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes, I got pushback. Really, the class didn’t understand my book, and my book is really pro-Black disabled pride and history and things about Black disabled art history. And yes, the students really didn’t get it.

LaRon A. Scott: Hmm.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: So I was wondering, is it the curriculum of Special Education majors? Because for example, I did this study when I was an undergrad here in the Bay Area. I went to three major universities where I interviewed undergraduate and graduate students in Special Education. And I come to find out that their textbooks were so outdated, and their curriculum was so not connected to the community of disability rights movements. So I’m just wondering, has the curriculum changed in Special Education? Is it continuing to be the same as the textbooks that I witnessed back in the ’90s?

LaRon A. Scott: That is such an interesting question. And you know I just completed a couple of new studies. One, called Recruiting and Retaining Black Male Special Education Teachers, and the other one called Phenomenological Study About the Experiences of Black Students and Special Education Graduate Programs Who Are Trying to Be Teachers in Inclusion Classrooms. And one of the suggestions or recommendations that came out of both those studies were directed at the curriculum, how it is really one of the barriers that folks from getting the experiences they need in order to feel connected to the areas within Special Education that means the most to them.

And so for example, when we think about the curriculum in general, it really has a Western philosophy behind the stories and what’s going on. And so it really is, it does not necessarily truly represent some of the major content and issues that should be challenged if folks want to learn and want to understand that’s happening in the Black community, for example, what’s around Special Education. That content is not there, and when it is there, it’s from the perspective of white scholars who again, not to say that they can’t do those types of work, but it may not have the same types of experiences of students of color, at least in these cases, were hoping for.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes! It is really strange to me to see a lot of Special Education teachers that are not teaching positive disability rights or disability history or culture. They just don’t understand it. Yes, it is strange to see that even today.

LaRon A. Scott: Yes it is. And there is a huge deficit theory out there that is really encapsulated a lot of the curriculum and what’s delivered, instructionally to folk.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes. What I also see is a lack of I.E.P. advocacy to Black parents. What is your experience on this issue?

LaRon A. Scott: My experience is similar to yours, that statement there, that there’s just a lack of it. The I.E.P. in general, obviously, is the cornerstone of intervening to support the needs of students with disabilities. And I’ll say that there’s not enough instruction that happens in that area, let alone there’s not enough training on how to effectively advocate for the long-term for students with disabilities. I mean we can talk about what current needs are, but when we think about transition-wise and their long-term adult outcomes, we don’t have enough stakeholders who have the knowledge. We don’t have enough folks who are demanding systems change and how to really advocate in closed-door systems who may not have the full capacity to understand how to think about what happens for students after they—while they’re in K-12—but what happens after K-12 as well.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes. What are the major obstacles of recruiting Black men into Special Education?

LaRon A. Scott: That’s a good question. I think one of the major things is Black people haven’t necessarily had the most polished relationship with the education system. And that’s been like that for decades and many generations, going back to just again, being called “uneducable” or “not being able to learn” or being segregated. There’s just a long-standing history of the education system and Black people in general, let alone the education system and Black boys and Black men and the things that are happening now with, again, suspension and all of these other factors. I think that has to be disentangled, and there has to be more acknowledgements about the disenfranchisement that has happened for Black men and for Black boys that are still going on in the education system. And so that’s one. If you don’t have a good experience in your K-12 environment, the likelihood of you saying that, “I want to now be represented or employed in that environment” is little to none.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Mm, yes. I agree.

LaRon A. Scott: That’s definitely is the biggest factor. And then we can learn to unpack that more. We can talk about how other disciplines or sectors—you can think about business or engineering and medicine—and those areas are incentivizing folks of color to work in their environments. So policy has been passed to bring in more Black folks to be engineers or Black men to be in medicine, and I think that’s all great. But we don’t see those same incentives in teaching. We don’t see large signing bonuses to be a teacher. You might see that in other areas, but you don’t necessarily see that in teaching.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes. I agree.  Some Black men intellectuals like Umar Johnson calls the field of Special Education “racist” and goes against the Black child and wants to totally eliminate it. What are your thoughts about this view?

LaRon A. Scott: You know, it’s honestly controversial, and there’s a lot of question. And I probably need to be a little more attuned to that conversation. But what has happened to the schools and Black boys, I understand sounding the alarm. I think it’s important for that to happen. And I think there are folks who honestly have different platforms and different ways of, I think, ultimately trying to reach the same goals. And before I actually take a position on that, I probably need to be more aware of all of the events and understandings from Umar Johnson, from his perspective.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes. Can you give us books and other reports and articles that are based on Black males in Special Education? Just a list of resources so people can find and read them.

LaRon A. Scott: Yes. I really love what Dr. Travis Bristol, I really enjoy what he’s doing. He’s, I believe, out of Stanford, and his work is really centered on both policy and practices that’s centered on supporting teachers of color. And he really looks at policies at different levels of national, state, and local. He looks at the intersection of race and gender and schools. He does a lot of work as well about Black male teachers as a whole. So his work helps to inform my work as I look at the sub-group of Special Education.

I also enjoy Donna Ford, her work as well. Donna, Dr. Ford, she is at Vanderbilt, I believe. And so her work—and I don’t know these people personally, by the way—but Dr. Ford’s work looks at closing achievement gaps and equity issues in schools, particularly around minority children. And she also looks at racially different students that are in gifted education programs, which I think is somewhat on the opposite spectrum of what I’m trying to inform. But it helps to contextualize that, again, there are a ton of gaps, and until we are really invested in understanding and intervening with those gaps, we are going to continue to have challenges with getting students in gifted education.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.:  How can we change the outlook on disability and Special Education in the Black community and in the minds of our Black youth and adults?

LaRon A. Scott: Good question! You know, I think there’s a bit of a stigma out there about mostly our Black students who have disabilities, and some of that is cultural. But I think the larger part of that is that narrative that, for years we have said about students who are placed in that pipeline: a) there’s questions about them being placed in the pipeline, but secondly, once they’re there, that there’s not a whole lot that we can do to care and support them. And I just don’t believe that. I don’t think others necessarily believe that as well. But I think the message is, as much as we can inform folks that there’s work to be done, that students can certainly overcome them if we hold people and systems accountable. And again, these students can go on to achieve much more greater things than we have in our generation. It’s just a matter of holding people accountable, holding systems accountable, and letting them know that our Black boys can learn.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: So true. So true. I know from my work, I go into schools a lot, and I bring in my book, Black Disabled Art History, and I see the light bulbs go off. It’s like, oh! You know? So once again, changing the curriculum, not only in Special Education but in all fields of education, you know?

LaRon A. Scott: Yes!

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: So do you have any last words?

LaRon A. Scott: Other than thank you for doing what you’re doing. I think it’s really innovative. I think it’s awesome. It’s creating these dialogues and the speaking tours and the books. I just think any way that we can create this dialogue is awesome. And I appreciate that.

Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Well, thank you, Dr. Scott, and thank you for allowing me to interview you.

LaRon A. Scott, Ed.D., is an Assistant professor in Counseling and Special Education.  Ed.D. in administrator leadership for teaching and learning; special education, Walden University, M.Ed. in special education, Virginia Commonwealth University