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When Words Fail Me, Life Takes Over

Words have failed me for so long now. The first half of this year launched me headfirst into the depths of fear, loss, anger, despair, relentless work ethic and longing for the familiar escapes of faith, family, nature and self care that have sustained me through the years. Here I am photographed in my outdoor armor (even in summer), as I placed a neck covering shawl over my maxi dress, and tied an African wrap over my nose and mouth, with my mask firmly in place underneath. The few times I’ve ventured out to run essential errands my survival instinct has been kicked into high gear, because I’ve lost so many family and friends. I have wanted and even tried on many occasions to commit pen to page and just write. But so often, words failed me and life (in the time of Corona) simply took over. Writing for pleasure has been nearly an impossible task since the onset of this dreadful pandemic. The novelty of this coronavirus and my people not just feeling, but actually being, under attack since February, 2020 has taken its toll. So the things I have always done effortlessly (breathing, writing, introspection and deep thoughtful activism), have been limited to going through the motions and doing just what was needed to survive.

For six months (and counting now), I have kicked in high gear in a major way, in virtually every area of my life. To God be the Glory! And if I’m being completely honest, it has certainly taken its toll. I have done my level best to cultivate the joy and gratitude I have for each day to maintain a peaceful solace and stability in our admittedly peaceful household. I have felt immensely blessed by the presence and quiet, unassuming yet indomitable strength of my creative, brilliant and thoughtfully beautiful adult daughter. She brings me joy, hope and abundant blessings as she weathers this difficult period of life’s trajectory with the exploration and enjoyment of the arts, music and painting especially, and in crafting brag worthy culinary feasts. Meanwhile, I have somehow begun to rise to the occasion as a leader in my immediate and extended family -by enthusiastically convening weekly family connection calls since March, which have now (thankfully and admirably) morphed into bi-weekly business meetings which have united us in a collective desire to forge ahead undaunted by fears of gloom and doom. In addition, I have spearheaded the near all-encompassing immersion of my entire church family and membership into the 21st Century age of technology as we now surpass snail mail totals with our online PayPal business account for the submission of our tithes and offerings. Also, we have been blessed and spiritually nourished via our now routine weekly Zoom worship services – which are streamed live in the true spirit of unity. These joint family and community initiatives have been a labor of love to be sure, but no easy task to maintain as it has meant an increased commitment of time (over and above my already busy work schedule). Most importantly, I have also been intentionally prayerful and even more intimately connected with my own mother – my best friend, confidante and a revered elder in both our family and local Black Nationalist and activist community alike – to ensure that as she has been routinely pulled in countless different ways and called upon to minister, give unselfishly of herself in leadership as a tenured professor or a retired elected official and grassroots community activist leader, that she continues to thrive physically, emotionally and mentally and that ultimately she counter her physically active days and nights, with a more predictable “shelter in place” norm which ensures that she is healthy and whole. This has been an especially important priority for me through this time of crisis. As she has lost an inordinate amount of peers to this tragic virus and as the eldest daughter, I consider it both an honor and my absolute responsibility that all of my Mother’s needs are met (despite her continuing refrain that “she’s got it”) ❤️. As such, nothing has given me more satisfaction than to have my Mom and honestly every other member of my family within my immediate (or technology savvy reach) be as: healthy, centered, happy and most importantly the picture of wellness as they can possibly be; our people overall are under attack in experiencing the acute impact of pain and loss during this horrific time in human history.

On a professional level, I have experienced a perceptible shift in the scope of my primary work as an Instructional Coach working directly with select school districts across the country to ensure that equity is leveraged as an all-inclusive priority. Despite the in-person closure of districts, I have ramped up my work on a global, virtual platform to ensure that I am instrumental in the development of our collective capacity to lead as administrators, lead teachers and ELA subject area practitioners. This meaningful work has been largely fueled by my life’s work and overarching mission to dismantle oppression and mis-education in such a way that the needs of Black students, in particular, are met commensurate with the unique genius, culture and exemplary humanity we bring to the world is similarly acknowledged in educational spaces. Well, in this time of unprecedented chaos and given the potential for substantive change, one of the ways I have certainly stepped up the very real challenges of meeting the wide-ranging needs of our youth leadership (aka students), has been by using news articles to design rigorous, Common Core curricula aligned lessons that were inclusive of close readings, text and life experience-based analyses, oral/written critical reflections, and formative evaluations. After fashioning an intentionally engaging high school distance learning curriculum from scratch (with only a unit theme and the accessible Newsela site as a guide); I then commenced to connecting virtually with students via a digital platform and hosting daily videos in a pre-recorded series of lesson accompaniments designed to at least mimic the sort of seamless, caring, engaging instruction my teaching might otherwise offer in person. The resulting immersion in student facing, content creation and a coveted opportunity to counteract trauma and otherwise contribute to an integral part of their abrupt, post-school closure/early onset of the pandemic daily lives, became as much of a soul-enriching blessing to me, as I pray it was to each of them. Admittedly, this work was highly fulfilling and close to my heart over the course of the 10-12 weeks duration in which it was produced. Since then, I have been committed to consulting an increasingly extensive body of research to determine the ‘best practices’ of an equitable school restart plan which would empower us to essentially reimagine school on a solid foundation of Revolutionary promise which would capitalize upon the spirit of the day and prioritize the needs of students. However, over time the challenge has been to fulfill my own personal, self care centered goals with my trademark of excellence…as the death toll increased exponentially in my own personal life and as the world was literally falling apart all around me/us. I’m sure you can more clearly see how/why blog writing took a seat wayyy in the back of life’s priorities.

During the interim period in which words and my love of writing failed me, I did manage to write a very therapeutic, narrative poem as a sort of ode to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s classic We Wear the Mask. But it laid bare so much raw pain and revolutionary fervor that I opted not to publish it at the time it was written as a means to maintain the public facing integrity of this educational blog. In retrospect, if I have stepped up either personally or professionally, in ways that did disappoint, it truly was not my intention to do so. As I progress through my forties, showing up as my authentic self means that white supremacy norms and unattainable dispositions towards perfection are no longer feasible. I am unapologetically me. In fact as if the aforementioned jobs were not enough, because I have always been a multifaceted high achiever, the noted primary work obligations were uniquely complemented by my ongoing and very active vocations as: a college graduate professor (to a host of truly brilliant and selfless educators), and an online international ESL language teacher to a small cadre of brilliant and highly motivated Chinese students (but, only on the weekends, given my expanded schedule and professional obligations since November of last year). Lastly, as a small business owner I have suffered significant lapses in clientele and company growth/expansion with the overwhelming constraints of conducting business in a post-pandemic and failing American economy. Essentially, through all this admitted busyness, I have scarcely had time to breathe, sleep, eat, exercise, meditate and pray. So writing: my self avowed first love (only rivaled by my loves of reading, being immersed in loving relationships and enjoying and loving life overall), had been forcibly thrown to the wayside in the hierarchy of priorities. Having honestly admitted these heartfelt truths is therapeutic for me. I must say how grateful I am for the faithful blog supporters who stuck around and hung in there with me, through lengthy periods of absence and the literal deafening silence which had come to be the reality of this beloved blog in the time of Covid.

In conclusion, I wish I could say that things would be back to normal soon, whatever that means, in terms of post pandemic life and our collective new normal. Sigh…but sadly, the death toll here in Detroit had only falsely appeared to dissipate and it now seems to be back on the rise with no end in sight. Also, the pivotal work of dismantling oppression in education is especially needed right now and does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon. While I am due for a coveted and long awaited week long vacation – that I hope to soon schedule and enjoy – I can only commit to keeping myself, the health of my family and friends and my life’s work uppermost in my priorities for the foreseeable future. I would LOVE nothing more than to write like my life depended on it, (because really it does), and to once again think deeply, rest sufficiently and experience joy without limits. Alas, the reality of this dual pandemic of COVID and racism means that my survival (and that of those whom I love) is truly not guaranteed and thus, the world turns in such a way that duty calls. What I can promise is that when I do get an opportunity to pour out of myself on this very public platform, I will do so authentically and somewhere within the unique intersectionality (thanks Sis, Kimberlé Crenshaw, #CiteBlackWomen), of Black woman, Mother, Scholar-Educator, She-Her-Hers, my health and wellness, fighting on the front lines of liberation and education. Until then, please be well! Asé ❤️✊🏿

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Would you Pass an #Equity Litmus Test?

“Walk it like I talk it” is what comes to mind when you think about the attention paid to equity across today’s educational and professional landscape. Although a widespread verbal commitment to equity is now politically correct and upon everyone’s lips as a trendy way to appear #Woke, we must advance beyond mere lip service and into the realm of the tangible in order for deeply entrenched levels of equity to be realized. In other words, it’s time to show and prove that we can walk it, like we talk it.

In this sense, equity starts in your own belief system and household and does not encompass merely the lip service paid while one enjoys the privileges of whiteness or working/middle class affluence. Question: would you enroll your children in an integrated, inner city neighborhood public school? And educators: would you consider enrolling your own children in the schools in which you teach? 🤔 The question is no doubt rhetorical, but if the answer to this question is not affirmative, chances are that you are painfully aware of the inequitable funding, resources and academic outcomes which are a reality within a widespread system of mis-education; yet you have, like so many others, deemed low-income, Black students as expendable. #Smdh.

Ultimately, NO student should be regarded as a sacrificial lamb from an educational perspective but Americans have made a conscious decision over the past few decades since Brown v. Board of education, to re-segregate education (and housing) on the basis of white privilege and affluence – thereby rendering mis-education as a myth or the inescapable inheritance of those unfortunate, marginalized children. I guess the real question is: who decides which children are unworthy of an equitable and high quality education education? The resounding consensus is that WE do . . . Everyday and by virtue of which schools we opt to enroll our own children. Truly, actions speak volumes over words and the act of personal investment in an inequitable system goes a long way towards establishing your commitment to and unwavering involvement in fostering widespread change. For the record, I’m not speaking about my opinion here, I am honestly about that life and telling you what I know from my own experience as both an educator and a parent who made a conscious decision to invest in my own child’s education as commensurate with the sacrifices I was willing to make on behalf of our people and all of the other children whom society regards as expendable. If the neighborhood school system in the countless cities in which you make your livelihoods aren’t worthy of your own child’s enrollment…perhaps your commitment to equity is in lip service only.

Each of us is uniquely obliged and largely responsible for counteracting the institutionalized systems of oppression that marginalized people inextricably face in meaningful, tangible, and personally significant ways, not just with the imposter syndrome facades with which we adorn our public persona(s). How can the public, impoverished schools ever be improved upon and rendered equitable, if they remain as an enigma to our own experience as privileged, school choice decision makers? Inner city schools go the way of housing and many are wholly abandoned by the affluent change makers in our midst who use their privilege (as secured by educational esteem and degrees) as fodder for their decisions to move on up (and right out of) disadvantaged communities. That is until gentrification deems the financial benefits of re-discovering and re-investment in a well established ‘historic’ region with renewed interest and promise of prosperity and stability. Even more curious, the verbal commitment of educated professionals who ourselves work in inner city schools have often tied our public agendas to equity, student achievement and closing the opportunity gap, even as their own residence is outside the community in which they earn a living and their own children attend private schools. Recently, the Washington Post posited that equity “could be the most effective mechanism for driving better outcomes for Black and Brown children”, still it would be very telling to conduct a poll on one’s personal alignment to equity, using school enrollment and residency as a sort of personal preference litmus test (to determine if the private reality matches up with one’s public perception). I daresay, our collective actions speak louder than words.

Despite my esteemed educational attainment and lengthy career as a teacher, principal and now a college professor – choosing to devote the bulk of my daily energy to dismantling mis-education through my work as an instructional leadership coach – my life’s work pays homage much more to my own humble public school beginnings, than it does to framing an illusory portrait of financial stability and upward mobility. Because quite frankly, the truth is that for even working class professionals like myself, we are all merely 1-2 paychecks (or looming, depression-like recession status) away from the clear and present danger of financial crisis. So we must align our personal commitments with our public persona as a means to lend credibility and the spiritual fortitude of Ma’at (balance, truth and reciprocity) to our efforts and to what we hold dear.

My own daughter, nieces, nephews, and cousins have ALWAYS attended the same Detroit and Brooklyn inner city, public schools I have taught in. Moreover, in each of these cities, I also lived in the neighborhood in which the schools were located. This is not a novel idea, because my college educated, community invested parents ultimately laid the foundation for an exemplar of: community reinvestment, social activism, grassroots political engagement, Black economic empowerment and perhaps most importantly, neighborhood public school enrollment, involvement and accountability that I was genetically gifted with the literal playbook equity 101. Trust me: it makes a huge difference to be both immersed in and materially invested in (as opposed to pimping), the communities and schools for which we fight.

Equity, social activism, anti-racism and their inextricable ties to freedom from oppression are not just fancy buzzwords in my family – they were and always will be a way 👏🏾 of 👏🏾 life 👏🏾. If the communities in which we lived and the schools in which we chose to enroll our own CHILDREN were the litmus test for equity, progressive thought and an abiding commitment to anti-racist ideology, sooo many people (educators included), would fail. 👀💯 Contrary to popular belief, many social activists and leaders have similarly opted to align their personal agendas with their beliefs and public persona, and in doing so they courageously set the standard of a conscious commitment to equity (not just in words, but in deeds). Notably esteemed and admirably bad-assed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, would likely agree that she and her husband’s reported decision to enroll their 4-year old daughter in a high poverty school is not sacrificing high quality nor lasting academic performance and success, rather she is exercising equity in action by investing in the very community within which some of our best and brightest Black and Brown children have sprung. She vehemently defends this decision against critics who insisted that she shouldn’t experiment with her own child’s education to a social justice agenda and she wisely counters “whose children should be sacrificed?”.

Of course I can only speak from personal experience, still I have admittedly been blessed to attend AND work in schools within which the founders, school leaders and teachers/support staff, all had their own children enrolled. It made a fundamental difference in how equity was practiced in terms of teacher pay, academic quality and the depth of the lifelong relationships and alliances formed. How blessed I have been to have had the exemplary privilege to have been enrolled in and to have taught in such unique institutions which meaningfully actualized the Educate to Liberate mantra of education as the basis of freedom from oppression. Surely the breadth of my lengthy experience as an educator also means that I have attended and worked in schools within which the leadership and instructional team have had multiple school-aged children who overwhelmingly attended private, suburban or parochial schools in the detached, affluent communities in which they lived. But of course, by and large these educators comprised the non-invested, savior, or “I’ve got mine, you get yours” ilk who represent the portrait of mis-education. No judgment if this has been your experience . . . But kindly save us all the empty lip service regarding your heartfelt commitment to equity. America has been far too willing to sacrifice its Black and Brown children to mis-education, while privilege and affluence prescribes the perpetuation of the status quo for their own offspring. Equity is not just a popular buzzword but informs a living, breathing and autonomous decision-making reality in each of our lives. How about making certain that we can walk it, like we talk it?

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Trauma Informed: How Performative Pedagogy Informs 21st Century Mis-education

A popular presence of trauma informed educational movements tout themselves as the literal gold standard of school reform. Many are led by “pedagogical gurus”, who claim to be capable of healing what ails America’s overwhelmingly traumatized students. Never mind that these modern movements deceptively compartmentalize their professional development offerings or product lines at cost. Oh yes and the gurus? Well, they are primarily non-educators who seek to capitalize off the most recent #schoolshooting or cash in on the latest ‘EduPimpology’ trend. The similar thread tying all such movements together is the incredulous claim that their innovation is capable of addressing the growing divide between Blacks (and other students of color), whose academic and social needs are not being met through traditional means. Really? Where’s the wealth of qualitative research and scientific, statistical evidence to support the veracity of the claim that students’ traumatic life experiences can be effectively diagnosed and treated in the classroom? Please insert the chorus of cricket sounds here . . . Because of course, no such tangible evidence exists. There does exist a body of emerging research over the past decade, on the inextricable impact of trauma on students, thus popularizing trauma informed classrooms as education’s next best thing. However, based upon its disproportionate implementation in schools’ who adopt a one-and-done PD model (sigh) or those who serve majority Black populations, the trauma based pedagogical reform model largely inculcates a “we” v. “them” mentality, oppressively framing impoverished Black students as victims; and clueless, White teachers as saviors. In fact, one need only read the first paragraph of a recent NEA article quoted here, to attest to the harmful deficit mindset of educators who believe “What does normal mean? What we consider normal [may not be] normal for them. How many of our students sleep in a bed?” Really?! Please insert the eye-rolling GIF here.

Despite the absence of sound, intergenerational and cross-cultural scholarship and data to support the widespread implementation of #TraumaInformedPractices, this movement has taken hold of school districts and classrooms across the country, and in some cases with disastrous implications for Black students. According to a recent Education Week article “Federal laws on special education and poverty now encourage schools to use trauma-informed practices, and more than a dozen states have passed laws or created grants designed to encourage schools to explore the approach” (Sparks, 2019). All such reforms, schools of thought and mass movements are easily identifiable under a popular umbrella of catchy names “Trauma Informed Practices” “Social Emotional Learning” or creating “Trauma Sensitive Schools”. However, for all conscientious teachers committed to infusing anti-racism, social justice and culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy (#AntiRacism, #SocialJustice, #CRSP) please be duly warned to exercise with extreme caution in embracing any/all ideologies which potentially exacerbate harm, especially for marginalized students, by reinforcing a #DeficitMindset about a phenomena which is, as yet untested and otherwise unproven to have currency and value to the population most at-risk of #Miseducation. The very existence of life in America for Blacks and other students of color is of itself #TraumaInformed. So overt racism, forms of bias and subtle microaggressions from teachers, masked as trauma informed practices, only serves to compound the systemic oppression of marginalized students.

Please do not misinterpret my suspicion as unfounded or without merit for the mere sake of disagreeing with a popular educational norm. Rather, my argument is not whether trauma actually exists or has a profoundly negative impact upon the Black, Indigenous, Latinx or Asian students upon which the pedagogical movement has been uniquely geared. On the contrary, I concede that traumatic incidents do in fact exist and can even be statistically proven to be intensified in the racially hostile and school-violence ridden era, which we are all forced to endure. My particular critique regarding the prevalence of the trauma movement is that it is experimental. I interrogate the value of any movement which imagines our teachers, easily the most overworked and underpaid of all career professionals, as mental health professionals capable of successfully navigating the myriad of professional obligations related to: teaching, learning, professional development, behavior management, curriculum, assessment and authentic evaluation; with the added responsibility of assuming UNQUALIFIED roles as psychologists equipped to deal w/ #TraumaInformed #SEL trends that effectively arms scores of uninformed, biased or racist teachers to further #miseducate and harm their Black (and other) students of color. Sheesh . . .

In the earlier cited Education Week article, “Howard Adelman, a psychology professor and co-director of the Center for Mental Health in Schools, said he’s skeptical that schools can provide enough training and resources to create effective supports for students with a history of trauma. For example…the journal of School Mental Health concludes that few models of trauma-sensitive schooling have been evaluated rigorously enough to prove they are effective” (Sparks, 2019). As a pertinent case in point, what if a students’ trauma-inducing triggers exist not at home (as commonly believed and reinforced by the deficit mindset), but at school or in society at large only when interacting with people outside their culture who fancy themselves liberal or empathetic, but nevertheless foster savior-complex beliefs and racist, classist, sexist behaviors which only serve to reinforce oppression? Please don’t assume that trauma is universal for all students of color. And even in cases in which trauma is a factor of a student’s prior experience, oft-times that trauma can be expressly linked to the living in America which boasts of a codified system of institutionalized oppression. As such, there is no illusion of trauma training as capable of engendering a “safe learning environment”, especially when schools are notorious for adopting every reform except that which addresses #AntiRacism and bridges the cultural divide existing between teachers and students.

As addressed in a previous blog post, because of the sheer demographics of America’s schools, i.e. the dearth of diversity, inclusion and representation amongst Black and all other teachers of color; reforms dependent upon fueling the savior mentality of White teachers while reinforcing the grave deficits of students of color is Hella problematic. In fact, the power dynamics of White women teachers and Black, Indigenous students of color are so skewed, that the prevalence of White, non-educator led innovations like the trauma informed movement is staggering and offensive, at best. At worst, this movement only serves to exacerbate the harm imposed from poorly run schools, wherein classrooms are individual islands of oppressive zones which otherwise perpetuate White supremacy and systemic oppression in every imaginable form. Implementation of the flawed and admittedly emerging trauma reform movement, does not empower teachers to more readily empathize with or build relationships with their students (as it seeks to do). In fact, once trauma informed practices are centered from the vital perspective of the students’ point of view, rather than that of the teachers’ trying to mitigate increasing behavior problems – one recognizes the potential implications of harm for Black students being asked to “unpack their trauma” at the behest of White teachers who are at the opposite end of the spectrum of oppression by virtue of their inherent White privilege. If continued to be implemented in such an irresponsible and roughshod manner, this movement will only ensure that teachers are even more conditioned to oppress, as they might be more apt to: ascribe special education labels, inform a universal belief in the inherent lack of students’ academic ability and/or inspire them to write off marginalized students altogether (as future criminals, riddled with incorrigible behavior issues stemming from their history of trauma). In other words, in its current iteration, the performative pedagogy of trauma informed practices in education exacerbates the problem of mis-education.

To the extent that the trauma informed movement and every trauma sensitive learning environment seeks to bridge the cavernous gap which exists between the dichotomous extremes of White women teachers and the Black and Brown students who comprise the classrooms across the U.S., I am in favor of all meaningful, positive, anti-racist, non-biased and student centered informed initiatives. If it means providing a quiet space for students who need a non-punitive timeout; offering food or snacks to hungry students or offering positive behavioral interventions and supports to students who most acutely suffer the effects of unrealistic and harsh zero tolerance policies, I am all for the universal implementation. There is an intentional emphasis upon universal here, because a troubling, recurrent theme is for these movements to be framed under the guise of an ideal way to mitigate trauma (exclusively for large populations of Blacks and other students of color), when in application these practices have been found to be just as problematic and #RacisAF as classroom enslavement re-enactments or “openly share your preferred pronouns, baggage and lifetime of traumatic experiences openly” so that I can prove that my classroom is a safe space trauma-inducing experiences. In terms of playing savior, Dr. or subscribing to trauma informed practices in uneven, discriminatory application in individual classrooms, teachers are doing much more harm than good and are well advised to just focus upon teaching. In order to be relevant, universally applicable and culturally appropriate, we must ensure that all such initiatives are research-based, academic integrity driven and foster the kind of federal funding which places the accountability for implementation upon well paid central office and building level administrators and certified, competent mental health professionals – NOT our teachers, who already shoulder the lion share of ALL of the accountability for teaching and learning. Do I believe that trauma informed practices can be at all effective, you might ask? Absolutely, I do. My rather scathing critique is based upon the visible harm I (and many others) have already noted in clueless application across classroom settings. As a federally funded reform, universally applied in all schools at the district level? I have every confidence that this movement can morph from its current distasteful form as a reform pimped from outside the pedagogical sphere – to a policy based reform driven by systemic change from within.

“Often, district policies need a complete overhaul to support trauma-sensitive schooling, said Timothy Purnell, a former superintendent in Somerville, N.J., who was named his state’s superintendent of the year in 2016 for launching trauma-sensitive practices in his district. It took nearly three years to review and rethink “every single policy, be it a school handbook or even a teacher’s classroom rules,” Purnell said “through the lens of, ‘Does this disconnect students? [or] … Does this give us the opportunity to treat a child uniquely and with respect?” (Sparks, 2019).

On the well resourced district level, superintendents, principals and especially school psychologists and social workers can guide the schools’ successful implementation of trauma sensitive practices. By definition, “Traumatic experiences can range from discrete events like living through a natural disaster to the ongoing stress of parental abuse or homelessness. Emerging research has found repeated exposure to trauma significantly increases children’s risks of later mental- and physical-health disorders, poor academic progress and behavior in school, and other problems” (Sparks, 2019). As countless articles, evidence and studies continue to acknowledge the pattern of the deleterious effect that traumatic events have upon school-aged children’s learning and social capacity, it is highly probable that the reach and impact of these movements will only expand in the future. This is understood and the challenge to ensure that such trauma reforms “Do No Harm” has been duly accepted. For those of us committed to #EducateToLiberate, we can only maintain vigilance that as reform movements are implemented, districts are prepared to ensure that their adoption of same is unbiased, beneficial and does not exacerbate the trauma of the marginalized students most readily impacted by mis-education. We must collectively ensure that the trauma informed movement does not increase Black students’ disproportionate diagnoses as disabled or otherwise contribute to their all-inclusive alienation from an educational system, hell-bent on their mis-education.