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'Choking' Incident In Kansas School Reveals Challenges For Black Students With Disabilities

Brandi Thorpe
An incident from January 2017 between then 8-year-old D'Juan Franklin and a paraprofessional in a Kansas school illuminates the challenges of students of color in special education.

Brandi Thorpe says her 10-year-old son D’Juan Franklin is a loving, intelligent child, who loves playing football and baseball. He's also autistic.

When Thorpe transferred him to the New Beginnings School in the Lansing, Kansas, district — a school dedicated to special education — she was hopeful that her son would get the support he needed. And, he did, up until the morning of January 17, 2017.

D'Juan was tapping his pencil on his desk. Paraprofessional Deirdre Dietz, or Ms. DeDe, asked him to stop. There are at least two different versions of what happened next.

In a conference room surrounded by teachers, administrators and police, D'Juan described the incident the next day as his mom recorded the conversation with her phone.

"Ms. DeDe slipped the chair from under me, then she put me against the wall and choked me," D'Juan said. "Then, once I got up, I picked up the chair then throw it at her, then picked up the whiteboard and hit her with it."

At that same meeting, Deitz claimed D’Juan attacked her, right after she took his pencil.

"That’s when he came at me. And my hands go up immediately," she said. "He’s awfully big to be restraining."

According to the school’s records from an internal investigation, Deitz was a foot taller and 145 pounds heavier than D’Juan at the time.

Another paraprofessional, Gina Rich, said she saw the incident where D'Juan "felt choked," and said Dietz's "hand wasn't even anywhere close," and that she was "protecting herself."

In a written statement to KCUR — in which no names are provided — the district's Director of Special Education Mary Alice Schroeger says the paraeducator's outretched hands came into contact with the student's neck when he "rammed the paraeducator's chest." She says that educator required medical attention, but does not mention that the student did, too. That's despite the fact that Thorpe sent D'Juan's medical records after the incident to the school and the district, with a doctor's assessment of bilateral bruising on his neck consistent with choking.

This is a complicated case for many reasons. D’Juan is not only autistic, he’s also black.

Credit Brandi Thorpe
Brandi Thorpe and her son, D'Juan Franklin.

"With kids of color and especially black boys with disabilities, you have race, gender, and disability status in play and they may be being treated differently on any of those three or all of those three combined. And that's a real concern," says researcher and attorney Dan Losen.

Losen is the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies out of UCLA's Civil Rights Project, and he's spent the better part of the past 20 years researching racial inequity in special education.

His research shows black students with disabilities are much more likely to get in trouble and miss classroom time than their white peers.

In fact, Kansas is the seventh worst state in the country when it comes to this gap; Missouri is fourth. According to data he released in April, black students with disabilities in Kansas spend nearly 5 times more time out of class than their white peers due to discipline.

"In Kansas, the difference is over a hundred days more lost instruction for the black students with disablities," Losen says. "That's just outrageous."

And, he says, it's not because black students with disabilities are misbehaving more; it's because they’re being treated more harshly. He says most teachers reject this idea, but, the evidence is there.

Thorpe says she doesn’t know for certain that her son’s race played a role.

"But I will tell you that from the superintendent on down to the teacher's aide that did this, everybody involved is white," Thorpe says.

Thorpe and her family no longer live in Lansing — she serves in the military, and was transferred to South Carolina. Despite the distance, she says the trauma of what happened to D’Juan has followed them like a dark cloud. She says he hasn't been the same since, and has consistently struggled in school. 

After Thorpe filed a formal complaint last year, the district says they spent 35 hours conducting an internal investigation. It found that the paraeducator wasn’t violating protocol, and that the one witness who corroborated D’Juan’s account of the events — who also happened to be a black child with learning disabilities — was not credible.

Schroeger tells KCUR the district installed cameras throughout the facility after the incident. She says the district "crisis team" trained staff on standards for "reporting to the guardian, nurse, police" and administrators, as well as deescalation tactics for "aggressive" students.

Thorpe was unsatisfied with the findings she recieved early last year. She says she reached out to superintendend Darryl Stufflebeam repeatedly — phone calls, emails, even office visits — to no avail. 

"I wish I knew why he stopped communicating with me," Thorpe says.

She wants to hold the district accountable for the incident, but more than that, now, she wants to make sure this never happens to anyone else. 

"When I think about this, it makes me very upset and it makes me wonder if these are things that my son is going to have to deal with as he gets older," Thorpe says.

Many parents of special needs children worry that police and other authority figures won’t understand their kids’ behavior. Many parents of color share that concern.

Thorpe says she worries about both.

KCUR's Andrea Tudhope is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email her at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @_tudhope.

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 
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