Blog Guest Posts Off-Topic

Zero Tolerance Policies in Education

February 20, 2020

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I am a Black parent of two Black autistic children of African-Caribbean heritage attending mainstream schools.  I have written this article to raise awareness about the experiences of Black autistic boys within the school’s system in the UK including, and the consequences for health wellbeing in adulthood.

Two years ago my son was permanently excluded from his secondary school because of his behaviour, behaviour I suspected arose from his undiagnosed autism. However, the school insisted that my son was defiant, disobedient and unwilling to follow school rules. Because the school believed his behaviour was chosen they refused my requests for an educational psychology assessment. According to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice (Dept of Ed 2014), this assessment should have been initiated because of his long record of disruptive behaviour.

To justify the permanent exclusion they carried out a risk assessment, characterising my son in stereotypical ways e.g. potential risks of involvement in gangs, substance misuse, carrying a weapon and violence to others. None of these claims were substantiated. This was the first indication we had that my son was being subjected to a form of racial profiling.

Ultimately though, we successfully challenged the school and the local authority, the decision was overturned and my son returned to his school after fifteen months, with an autism diagnosis and with appropriate support. It is this experience that led to my research into the experience of Black boys with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis and how racism, micro-aggressions of racism, and ableism intersect and damage the life chances of Black autistic boys in the UK.

 Black the term has taken on more political connotations with the rise of black activism in the USA since the 1960s and now its usage implies solidarity against racism. The idea of ‘black’ has thus been reclaimed as a source of pride and identity (Bains R)

 For the purpose of this article, the term Ableism is: ‘…the discrimination or dehumanisation of a disabled person. The ableist societal world-view is that neurotypical or able-bodied people are the norm in society and therefore essential and fully human. In contrast, people who have diversities or disabilities are largely seen as invisible ‘others’, in a diminished state of being human…’ (Identity-First Autistic, 2016)

In the report, ironically titled, ‘They Never Give Up on You’ – The Office of the Children’s Commissioner, School Exclusion Inquiry (2012), identified:

‘A black Caribbean boy eligible for free school meals who also have special educational needs (SEN) is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded than a white British girl without SEN and not eligible for free school meals’.

This claim recognises the compounding impact of discrimination known as intersectionality. Crenshaw (1989) first coined the term when describing the specific issues for Black women facing racial and sex discrimination in employment. In a later article concluded:

“When it comes to thinking about how inequalities persist, categories like gender, race, and class are best understood as overlapping and mutually constitutive rather than isolated and distinct” (Crenshaw, 2016).

In this article, I intend to raise awareness about the impact of the high rates of permanent school exclusions for African Caribbean boys in the UK. The permanent exclusion from the school of Black autistic boys is potentially a ‘pipeline from school to prison’. Black boys are under-represented in the diagnosis of autism. Black boys are more likely to be seen as having conduct disorders or just badly behaved!

Keeney Parks (2018,) a Black mother and researcher in the USA shares my concerns. She writes about the day to day lives and experiences of Black parents who have a child diagnosed with autism. Her recent online blog identifies similar realities to those I have experienced;

 ‘The disparities faced… by African-Americans receiving special education services, which is the case with the majority of autistic children, are especially disconcerting… but even more so for kids in special education, who are often segregated from typical peers into special classes, juvenile justice, and criminal justice systems are deprived of an appropriate education that could have changed their School-to-Prison Pipeline trajectory.’

In the UK context, The Lammy Review (2017) found that:

Despite making up just 14% of the population, BAME men and women make up 25% of prisoners, while over 40% of young people in custody are from BAME backgrounds. There is greater disproportionality in the number of Black people in prisons here than in the United States.

I believe that this a sign that Black autistic boys are in danger of being on the same trajectory as the African Americans in the USA that Parks describes.

A confidential government briefing paper was recently leaked last month, (Guardian, 2019) addressing the concerns arising from their determination to continue with a ‘Get Tough’ stance on poor behaviour. According to the Guardian the DfE paper:

… includes a major focus on poor behaviour in schools, said to be driven by No 10’s view that recent polling has shown strong public support for policies taking a tougher

line. The announcements will include explicit support for headteachers who use “reasonable force” in their efforts to improve discipline.

… While the DfE expects members of the public will welcome “a harder narrative on discipline”, the document warns key stakeholders will be worried the policy could result in increased rates of permanent exclusion, which have in any case been climbing since 2012.

The document notes police and crime commissioners “worry about rates of exclusion driving knife crime” and acknowledges concerns it will impact disproportionately on children from some ethnic minority backgrounds, in particular, black Caribbean boys, and those with special educational needs (SEN).

The prevailing culture of the government is creating a hostile climate for Black autistic boys that clearly says, We Have Given Up On You rather than the promise implied in the OCC claim in ‘They Never Give Up On You’ where they state:

“Permanent exclusion has a negative effect on an excludee’s life for far longer than the period immediately after exclusion. We knew a minority of schools exclude informally and therefore illegally but for the first time in this Inquiry have this on record. Whilst most schools work far beyond the call of duty to hold on to troubled and vulnerable children, a minority excludes on what seems to the observer to be a whim. And for whatever reasons, many of them explored in this report, we have not sufficiently challenged the failures and brought about the changes required. We must do so now” (OCC, 2012).

By Olatunde Spence 26th January 2020 


About The Guest


Olatunde Spence – Freelance art psychotherapist specialising working with people to overcome trauma and the impact of repeated traumatic experiences such as racial microaggressions, institutional racism, childhood neglect, discrimination, and exclusion. I work as a therapist and activist to raise awareness about intersectionality and the consequences of racism and ableism for African Caribbean people who are autistic.



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