Rachel Aviv | October 1, 2018 Issue | The Newyorker
A statewide network of schools for disabled students has trapped black children in neglect and isolation.
Seth Murrell, a four-year-old boy with dreadlocks to his chin, moved with his family to Atlanta in the fall of 2015. On his first day at his new preschool, he cried the whole morning. He wouldn’t sit still in his chair. He’d pop up and snatch the glasses off a classmate’s face, or spit at the teacher. When he was tired, he waved his arms in the air, begging his teacher to hold him. On the rare occasions that his teacher complimented him, he shouted “Yay!” too loudly.
His mother, Latoya Martin, a hair stylist, had moved with her husband and three children from Donalsonville, a rural town in Seminole County, in the southwest corner of Georgia, to be closer to psychiatrists and neurologists who would understand why her son was developmentally delayed. He couldn’t string words together into a sentence. His teachers called Latoya nearly every day and told her to pick him up early, because he was disrupting the class. When Latoya resisted—she was busy looking for a new job—her friends warned her that the school might call child-protective services if she couldn’t pick up Seth promptly. Latoya sensed that the teachers were accusing her of being a bad parent, so she informed the school’s principal that she had never done drugs and that in high school her G.P.A. had been 4.0. Latoya’s sister Anita said, “They kept saying we needed to work with him more at home. I’m, like, we work with him—that’s not the problem. This is part of his disability!”
After a month, Latoya was told that Seth would be sent to a school twenty minutes away, in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, a constellation of schools, known as GNETS, attended by four thousand students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Anita, a public-school teacher in Atlanta for nearly two decades, said, “I was just trying to figure it out in my head—we already have special-ed classes in the schools, so why is there this second system?” GNETS has a ten-per-cent graduation rate, compared with seventy-eight per cent for other public schools in Georgia.
Seth, who at twenty-one months had been given a diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder—a loosely defined diagnosis often given to toddlers when their condition is not understood—was assigned to the Ash Street Center, one of a hundred and seventy-nine sites in the GNETS network. The school is surrounded by a gated fence. Latoya said that the next-youngest student in Seth’s class was nine. The year before, a teaching assistant at Ash Street had been arrested after knocking a fourteen-year-old boy to the floor, choking him, and shouting, “I will kill that little motherfucker!”
Latoya said that, when she walked into her son’s class, “I did not see one white child. All I saw was black boys.” Seth’s “target behavior,” according to the center’s intervention plan, was to “comply with adult directives.” Latoya demanded that Seth be returned to his neighborhood school, but she was told that first he had to meet his performance goals, which included following instructions seventy per cent of the day. “You all know this is against the law, right?” she said to Seth’s teacher. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1975, states that children with disabilities must be educated with their nondisabled peers to the “maximum appropriate extent.” They can be removed from their classrooms only if their disabilities are so severe that they can’t learn in a less restrictive setting.
After Seth had gone to Ash Street for ten days, Latoya and her husband, Tercel, who was working at a Toys R Us, returned with their children to Donalsonville, where Latoya’s family has lived for as many generations as they can trace back. Latoya’s sister Yvette, a high-school teacher, said, “She was just praying that a small town with teachers who had grown up around them would know how to take care of her baby.” Latoya tried to enroll all three children in their former school, where she and her twelve siblings had gone. Though black and white students at the school had held separate proms as recently as the nineteen-eighties, Latoya trusted the teachers, many of whom she’d grown up with. Her two older children rejoined their classes, but the school district said that Seth was now classified as a GNETS student. He would have to take a bus to a GNETS school called Pathways, in Bainbridge, thirty minutes away.
Latoya’s sister Sonja, who lived in Bainbridge, occasionally stopped by Pathways in the middle of the day. She described the school as a kind of ghost town. The front office was empty—the secretary and the coördinator had left, and the positions were never filled—and there was no full-time nurse, social worker, resource officer, or behavioral specialist. (The district’s superintendent said that off-site staff provided support to the school.) Sonja said, of the first time she came to the school, “I walked down the hallway hollering, ‘Hello? Hello? Anybody here?’ ” She looked in Seth’s classroom and saw him sleeping on the floor, alone. His teacher was in another room.
There are roughly a hundred students at Pathways, which has three sites in the region, and all of the students are classified by the state as “economically disadvantaged.” In Bainbridge, there was only one other student in the elementary-school class: MaKenzie Phillips, a petite thirteen-year-old white girl who immediately warmed to Seth, calling him her baby. MaKenzie took antidepressants, antipsychotics, two drugs for attention-deficit disorder, and anti-anxiety pills. She was generally calm and said, “Yes, Ma’am,” when addressed, though she also interrupted conversations with vulgar words. She was in the elementary class because she had an I.Q. of 40. She spent much of the day flipping through magazines that she couldn’t read. MaKenzie’s mother, Erica, said that, whenever she dropped by the classroom, “there was no instruction. But I just figured I was coming at the wrong time of day.”
Seth’s class was led by Melissa Williams-Brown, who lived a few blocks from Latoya and had gone to her high school. She was not certified to teach elementary school, and had little knowledge of the nature of her students’ disabilities. “I didn’t get any specialized training,” she told me. “I just winged it.” The students at Pathways had bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, A.D.H.D., autism, or, as one teacher put it, “home-life issues” such as neglect, trauma, or poverty. Williams-Brown didn’t understand why Seth, who was eventually given a diagnosis of autism, couldn’t return to his neighborhood school, where there were more qualified teachers. “There was nothing in place for this young man,” she told me. “I just felt like these students, especially the black boys, were put there, basically, because they intimidated their teachers.”
The first GNETS school, the Rutland Center, founded in 1970, was once housed in the former West Athens Colored School, whose principal promised to teach the “practical duties of life” to the “inferior race.” The concept for GNETS was visionary. According to a report by researchers at the University of Georgia, the schools, then called psychoeducational centers, would rely on teachers trained in developmental psychology, ready to “face the assault of bizarre behavior.” They were taught that they might be the “only agent for change in the life of a disturbed child.” Mary Wood, a professor emerita at the University of Georgia, who developed the concept, said that she intended for each program to have a consulting psychiatrist, a social worker, a program evaluator, and a psychologist. But as the first generation of directors retired, in the nineties, “the pieces of the mosaic dropped out,” she said.
In the two-thousands, funding was cut, and the psychologists who remained seemed to be given free rein. One mother learned that a school psychologist was planning to subject her daughter, who had post-traumatic stress disorder, to fifteen hours of “experiments” devised to provoke misbehavior. “If I go to a mechanic with my car and my car is not doing the problem that I brought it there for, the mechanic can’t diagnose it,” the psychologist explained, at an administrative trial in 2005. “That’s the same situation here.” Over the years, a few parents became so suspicious of the program that they sent their children to school wearing recording devices. On one tape, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, a teacher could be heard giving a child what someone in the room called a “be-quiet hit.” On another, teachers laughed about how they had put a student in a seclusion room because they needed a break. In 2004, a thirteen-year-old student hanged himself in a Time Out Room, an eight-by-eight concrete cell that could be locked from the outside.
Leslie Lipson, a lawyer at the Georgia Advocacy Office, a state-funded agency that represents people with disabilities, said that she first learned of the GNETS system in 2001, when a mother called to report that her son was put in a seclusion room nearly every day. “It’s all little black boys at this school,” the mother told her. Lipson researched the mother’s claims and then rushed into her boss’s office to tell him that she’d discovered an “insidious, shadow education system.” She said, “I thought I was Erin Brockovich. I was, like, ‘You are not going to believe this! There is an entire segregated system in Georgia! Can we shut this down immediately?’ I was talking a thousand miles a minute, and my boss waited for me to take a breath. He was, like, ‘Um, yeah, these schools have been around since before you were born.’ ”
Lipson studied the history of the schools, some of which were established in buildings that had housed schools for black children during the Jim Crow era. At a time when there was an outcry against court-ordered integration, GNETS became a mechanism for resegregating schools. “It became a way to filter out black boys, who at younger and younger ages are perceived to have behavioral disabilities,” she said.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities learn in the “least restrictive environment,” a loose term that may mean different things depending on the race or the class of the student. Nirmala Erevelles, a professor of disability studies at the University of Alabama, told me that, “in general, when it comes to people of color—particularly poor people of color—we choose the most restrictive possibility,” sending students to “the most segregated and punitive spaces in the public-school system.” According to Beth Ferri, a disability scholar at Syracuse University, IDEA provided a kind of loophole to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Now racial segregation continued “under the guise of ‘disability,’ ” she said. “You don’t need to talk about any race anymore. You can just say that the kid is a slow learner, or defiant, or disrespectful.” Ferri said that IDEA “treated disability as apolitical—a biological fact. It didn’t think about things like racial or cultural bias.”
Data obtained through records requests reveal that the percentage of students in the GNETS program who are black boys is double that of the public schools in the state. Most of the students in GNETS are classified as having an “emotional and behavioral disorder,” a vague label that does not correspond to any particular medical diagnosis. A teacher who worked for five years at a GNETS program called Coastal Academy, in Brunswick, told me, “We always had a sprinkling of middle-class white kids, maybe two or three, but they didn’t stay long. Everyone made sure they got out. It was the black students who were trapped there. They came in first grade and never left.” Coastal Academy occupies a lot that once held an all-black school, originally called the Freedman’s School, and the percentage of black males in the program is three times that of the districts that the school draws from. The teacher, who worried that she’d lose her job if she were identified, said that public schools in the area would “send the African-American kids to us for doing things like saying the word ‘shit’ in class or pushing a chair in really loudly. They would never, ever—never in a million years—attempt to come at a white parent with that.”
The teacher said that students at Coastal Academy were routinely knocked to the floor and restrained. When they couldn’t calm down, they were put in a Refocus Room. “If a student was having a bad day or hadn’t taken his meds, the teacher down the hall from me would park herself in front of the room and the student would stay there all day,” she said. “I heard children shrieking and screaming.” (The program’s director denied that students were knocked to the floor and that the room had been used for seclusion—the state banned seclusion rooms in 2010—and said that some students asked to go there.) When parents complained, the teacher said, “they were met with the same rigmarole: there is a reason why your son is here, and sometimes kids with these conditions make things up.”
Suzie Dunson, the grandmother of a student in a GNETS program called the Woodall Center, in Columbus, said that, when her grandson was in first grade, she stopped by the school one day and found him sitting on the floor, handcuffed to a classroom chair. “He was six years old, and he looked like a chained animal,” she told me. Her grandson routinely came home from school with a swollen face. “I’d ask him, ‘How was school today?’ ‘Oh, I got restrained,’ he’d say.” According to the Woodall Center’s records from the past two years, there were sixteen instances of teachers injuring students while attempting to restrain them. The reports typically blame the student: “In the process of restraining him he twisted his body and hit his head,” one teacher noted. “His face must have rubbed on the ground,” another wrote.
This year, when Dunson’s grandson was sent to a juvenile-detention facility, at the age of eleven, he already had a friend there—a boy from his class. She describes the Woodall Center, where more than half the students are black boys, and ninety-one per cent are classified by the state as “economically disadvantaged,” as a “pipeline-to-prison program.” (A spokeswoman for the Woodall Center said that the school does not have documentation of Dunson’s grandson being handcuffed or regularly restrained.)
It is not uncommon for students with disabilities to be placed in settings that are unnecessarily isolated, but GNETS is unusual in that this form of segregation is sponsored by the state rather than by the school district; families can’t escape it by moving to a new neighborhood. Jatoyia Armour, a public-school teacher in Atlanta, said that when her five-year-old son, Jamir, was referred to GNETS, “I kept telling myself, ‘This isn’t a race issue. Jamir just has behavioral issues.’ ” She and Jamir had recently moved to an affluent suburb in northern Atlanta so that he would be zoned for a better school. He was the only black boy in his kindergarten class. He had an I.Q. of 120, but he wouldn’t sit still, and had tantrums in which he threw objects. Armour said that the school called the police three times before he was transferred to a GNETS program, where the proportion of black boys to other students is nine times that of his elementary school. “When I got to the GNETS program, and it was majority black, it was glaring,” Armour told me. “They wanted this little black boy out. And it hurt.” She homeschooled Jamir for the rest of the year and then enrolled him in a charter school, but when the charter school reviewed his records she was told that he had to go back to GNETS. “I worked hard to move to that area to give my kid the best, and we were pushed back out,” she told me. She worries that Jamir has already internalized the experience. In the past year, he has begun to introduce himself to strangers by saying, “Hi, I’m Jamir, I’m bad.”
In 2016, under President Barack Obama, the Department of Education instituted the “significant disproportionality rule,” which required states to more vigilantly report when students of color are disciplined and placed in special-education classes at higher rates than their peers. Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, and although black students make up only nineteen per cent of students with disabilities, they make up thirty-six per cent of those who are mechanically restrained—handcuffed, strapped to a chair, tied down.
The “significant disproportionality rule” was supposed to take effect in the summer of 2017. But, when President Donald Trump directed agencies to cut federal regulations, the Department of Education said that the rule needed to be modified or rescinded, and delayed it for two years. Michael Yudin, the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in Obama’s Department of Education, told me that he was appalled by the decision. “It flies in the face of the data, reams and reams of data, showing that the problem is massive,” he said.
After Seth had been at Pathways for a few months, the school hired a new teacher, who was properly certified. Latoya said that her son’s behavior quickly improved. In her records, the teacher wrote that Seth “is affectionate with his peers and teachers (hugs). . . . He often dances and sings small phrases from the verses of song.” He began to use sentences.
That summer, after Seth’s first year at Pathways, Obama’s Department of Justice brought a lawsuit against Georgia to “vindicate the rights of the thousands of students unnecessarily segregated in the GNETS Program.” Negotiations for a settlement faltered shortly before Trump was elected. Alison Barkoff, who served as the special counsel in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice under Obama, told me, “The state rolled the dice on a change in Administration and had a good roll.” The new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, had told the Senate, in 2000, that IDEA was a “big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.”
In October, 2016, Seth’s new teacher quit. She didn’t want to talk to me or have her name printed, for fear of professional repercussions. When I showed up at her house, she wouldn’t let me in. She stood on her porch and said, “What the Department of Justice is saying about GNETS is completely true. It’s completely true. It’s not therapeutic at all. The kids are not being educated. Not even in a social-skills way.”
Melissa Williams-Brown remained in the classroom, with the help of a substitute aide who, she told me, was “just a friend of somebody who worked there. She was just a body, and that body had no educational training.” Years before, Williams-Brown had learned to physically restrain middle-school students, but, she said, “I was never trained how to restrain a child as small as Seth. So I just came up with my own method.” She stood behind him while folding his arms across his chest or laying his arms on a desk. Seth’s doctor said that he was too young for medication, but the staff at Pathways urged Latoya to give him medication; he needed “something to keep him still,” Williams-Brown said.
The middle-school aide at Pathways, Phyllis Rambo, who lived a block away from Latoya, routinely got her hair done at Latoya’s house. Latoya sees some twenty clients a day in her living room. Tercel, who is out of work, sometimes assists by sitting near a power outlet, and, when she waves the cord of the blow dryer, plugging it in. Latoya’s eldest sister had been a close friend of Rambo’s since they were toddlers, and Latoya’s best friend was Rambo’s daughter Daneisha. As she weaved Rambo’s hair, Latoya complained that Seth became more aggressive and defiant at school. His teachers said that he had begun cursing. “I want you to sit here and listen to how many times Seth curses here,” she told Rambo. “Not one time. We do not swear in this house.”
Latoya wondered if her son’s condition was the cost of her behavior as a teen-ager. In her neighborhood, she had been known as a fighter, easily provoked. “I was angry for a long time about how my daddy used to treat my mama,” she told me. “I thought I could change—and I did change, and that’s why I named my daughter Sahrenety, to be honest—but then it came back with Seth. I felt like this was my punishment for being angry.”
Last fall, when Seth began first grade, a new teacher, Avondika Cherry, was leading his classroom. Cherry, a tall, elegant black woman who was raising a daughter on her own, had been a special-education teacher for seven years in Gadsden County, Florida, where she was once named Teacher of the Year, before rising to become an administrator of the program. She took the position at Pathways because it paid slightly better than her old job. In a reference, a colleague wrote that Cherry was “a very astute, responsible, earnest, and dependable person.”
Cherry had not been trained to teach students with autism; neither had her supervisor, a white woman named Jeanene Wallace, the director of all three Pathways centers, who had worked for gnets for twenty-one years. Wallace asked a teacher who taught autistic students at another Pathways site if Cherry could observe her classroom for a few hours. “I apologize for having so little ideas, but I just don’t know how to work with these students,” Wallace wrote.
Cherry, who was studious and unaccustomed to wasted time, began applying for new jobs after a week. She encouraged Williams-Brown to look elsewhere, too. “I think you can do something better,” she told her one day, as Seth lay on the floor on his back in a sunny spot by the window. “The way I see this place, it needs to be shut down.”
The school had installed new surveillance cameras the prior year, after Georgia passed a law—named for a boy whose mother complained that he routinely came home from school bruised—allowing video monitoring equipment in special-education classrooms. A review of close to a hundred hours of classroom surveillance footage, obtained through an Open Records Act request, shows that there was usually about half an hour of instruction in Seth’s class per day. Much of the day was devoted to the drama of whether or not Seth would wear his shoes. He found them uncomfortable, as many autistic children do. When he took them off, he was sent to Cool Down, a desk facing a blank wall. He went to Cool Down several times a day, for up to thirty minutes at a time, for other behaviors that stem from his disability, such as counting to ten in the wrong order, saying “no” repeatedly, or making funny noises.
MaKenzie often expressed affection for Seth when she sensed that he was being maligned. She told him several times a day that she loved him. He typically gravitated to whatever part of the room she was in. Once, after Seth took off his shoes, MaKenzie asked her teachers, “Seth is being bad, ain’t he?”
“He’s always bad,” Cherry said.
MaKenzie, who liked to take off her shoes, too, sat on a beanbag chair, and Seth lay on the floor, curled up next to her legs. “I’m bad,” she muttered to herself.
Twice a week, Latoya takes her family to the Gathering Place, a church in a former supermarket in Donalsonville. The pastor gives his sermons in the old meat section, a large cinder-block room with L.E.D. lighting. Seth’s aunts and cousins make up about a quarter of the week-night congregation. When I went with them one evening, Seth sat next to five cousins and shared a folding chair with a friend from the neighborhood, a teen-ager raised in foster care who treated Seth like a little brother. As they waited for the service to start, Seth leaned on the boy’s shoulder and watched the other kids while chewing on the collar of his shirt. The pastor made announcements on a microphone, and Seth began silently weeping. He often cried when he heard loud noises. Once the congregation began singing, though, Seth stood up, closed his eyes, bowed his head, and hummed along to the melody. He danced and clapped with the other kids, but a little more vigorously.
In school, Seth was more agitated. He increasingly seemed to embody everything that his teachers resented about their jobs, and they talked about him as if he couldn’t comprehend language. “You’re about three grade levels behind, and you think you’re going to have a career?” Williams-Brown said one day, as Seth sat in Cool Down, where he’d been sent for not listening to a story. He watched the women and whimpered.
“Turn around and be quiet,” Williams-Brown said.
“I’m going to suggest he move back to day care,” Cherry told her.
“If he doesn’t pay attention, he’s going to be locked up,” Williams-Brown said.
“Ms. Williams, I love you—be nice,” MaKenzie said later. “And Ms. Cherry.”
“You know I’m always nice,” Cherry said.
“You’re lying,” MaKenzie told her.
Cherry shared her frustrations with such detail and abandon that she seemed either to believe that no one cared or to wish, on some level, to be fired. When Williams-Brown missed a day of school in October and a substitute, Teresa Richardson, filled in for her, Cherry said that she felt tricked by Wallace into taking a job that no one else wanted. “You say you’re the supervisor—you say you’re watching the camera, then you can see the things that happen,” she said. “You aren’t saying nothing.” She wondered if Wallace, whose office was forty minutes away, was intimidated by her, because she had so many opinions about what was wrong with the program. She was also the only black lead teacher in the building; besides Williams-Brown and Rambo, the middle-school aide, the other teachers were white.
“It’s a bad situation,” Richardson agreed. She was sitting on the floor next to Seth, holding his legs still, trying to coax him to take his afternoon nap. A few feet away, MaKenzie was watching “The Princess and the Frog,” which was being projected onto a wall. Richardson said that her mother had heard people in town talking about how the school was “not giving them the education that’s needed. It’s not what it’s supposed to be—you and I can see that ourselves.”
Cherry shook her head. “I got to get out of here so quickly.”
“I hate my life,” MaKenzie blurted out.
“No, you do not,” Richardson said. “Life is a wonder.”
In Cherry’s third month at Pathways, she hit Seth. Seth had taken off his shoes again. Williams-Brown shoved them back on, saying, “I ain’t gonna have no mercy.” Crying, Seth bolted toward Cherry, who was facing the sink, and slammed into her body. Cherry was startled, and she turned around and hit him four times on the arm and the head. He fell to the floor, and she hit him three more times. MaKenzie watched from a few feet away.
Cherry wanted to resign that night, but, with a mortgage to pay, she continued. When she arrived the next morning, Williams-Brown was chatting with Phyllis Rambo. The conversation turned to the movie “The Exorcist.” The film tells the story of a twelve-year-old girl with an inexplicable disease whose severity her mother doesn’t appreciate. “See, her mama was in denial,” Williams-Brown said. “And that’s when they got to—well, have you ever heard of an exorcism?” Williams-Brown said that the mother, after talking to a priest, “realized that there’s more we have to do for this little girl than just medicating.”
“So let’s take our two students to the priest,” Cherry said. She told Rambo how Seth had charged toward her the day before. “I thought he was the little devil or something,” she said. The two aides laughed.
“That boy totally got me out of my element,” she went on. “I got to reënact this.” She stood up from her desk, walked to the classroom sink, and imitated herself raising her arm and striking him. “I forgot that I was in this class,” Cherry told the aides. “I forgot that I was in the school here, with the camera. I forgot that this is somebody else’s child. I forgot I was a teacher.”
A few minutes later, Seth walked into the room. The school bus had just dropped him off.
“Your shoes—they stay on your feet today!” Williams-Brown told him. “Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” he said, in a soft, hoarse voice. He sat at a table in the center of the room and ate a Pop-Tart.
The three women began to criticize Latoya for not giving him medication. “He is already, what, six years old?” Rambo said. “She should have gotten him on young.”
Seth stood up from his chair and made a deep, wordless noise.
“Sit down,” Williams-Brown told him. He sat down.
“I look at it like this,” Williams-Brown went on. “This is his mama’s fault. He is a product of his environment.”
Williams-Brown added that Seth’s father wasn’t “bringing anything to the table.” She said, “It’s partly his fault for having a child like that.”
“Not only is nothing happening at home, but nothing is happening here, either,” Cherry said. “Because this isn’t school.”
Shortly after Cherry hit Seth, MaKenzie began telling her teachers that she was scared. She sometimes said it more than a dozen times a day. Seth learned the words, too. Nine days after Cherry hit him, he sat at a computer, watching a music video about a tractor. “I’m scared,” he told Williams-Brown.
“You ain’t scared,” she said.
“I’m scared,” he said again.
“Look, did you become MaKenzie?” she asked him. “Don’t be trying to use her antics. You ain’t scared of nothing.”
Later that day, Seth had refined his vocabulary. “She hit me,” he said, while sitting at a table with Williams-Brown and Cherry.
“Who hit you?” Cherry asked.
“Cherry,” Seth said.
Cherry seemed not to realize that he was saying her name. “Who hit you?” she asked again.
“You,” he said.
That afternoon, Wallace, their supervisor, stopped by. “Hi, y’all, how are you doing?” she said brightly, from the hallway. “Good,” Cherry said, without conviction. Wallace kept walking. It was the only time Wallace came to the classroom in all the surveillance footage I watched.
“You’re running away,” Cherry said after Wallace had passed. “Come on in and help.”
At the end of the week, at Wallace’s request, Cherry sent her a chart listing nine times in two days that Seth had been sent to Cool Down, usually for the same reason: “non-compliant.” Wallace was concerned about the amount of time he spent there, and she began watching footage of the classroom, taking notes as she watched. “Stop the power struggle with the shoe,” she wrote.
“Tone—harsh, mean.” When she reviewed footage from October 10th, she saw Cherry imitating herself hitting Seth. She rewound to the previous day to watch what Cherry was reënacting.
Cherry and Williams-Brown were told to report to the office of the superintendent of the school district for a meeting the next day. The superintendent, George Kornegay, played Cherry the video of her hitting Seth, and she told him she had been asking for help since she’d been hired. Cherry and Williams-Brown agreed to resign. In an e-mail to the county board of education, Kornegay wrote, “I regret that this incident happened, but I truly don’t know how it could have been foreseen or avoided.” Kornegay told me that Seth’s classroom was not representative of the Pathways schools.
Latoya was shown a clip of the video a few days later and wanted to pull Seth out of school. But her sister Yvette, the high-school teacher, told her, “Make them do what they are supposed to do. Make them give him his education.”
Richardson, the substitute aide, filled in for Seth and MaKenzie’s class with the help of rotating substitutes. After three and a half weeks, Wallace couldn’t find enough teachers, so she told parents at Pathways not to send their children to school that day. “I can’t continue like this,” she wrote to Kornegay. “Something bad has already happened, and I am worried there might be more.” Kornegay admonished her, writing, “I believe we are failing to provide FAPE”—the right to a free appropriate public education, which is guaranteed by IDEA. A month earlier, the Georgia Advocacy Office, together with the Arc of the United States, a disability-rights organization, had filed a class-action lawsuit, alleging that the state “discriminates against thousands of Georgia public school students with disabilities” by “segregating them in a network of unequal and separate institutions.”
MaKenzie’s mother, Erica, didn’t learn that her daughter’s teachers had been forced to resign, or why, until five weeks after they left. When a video of the hitting incident was played on a local news channel, MaKenzie heard the sound of Seth crying and called out, “Are they hurting my baby again?” The news program announced that Cherry had been charged with battery, assault, and cruelty to children. Williams-Brown had been charged with failing to report child abuse.
Erica decided to teach MaKenzie herself. “I’ll probably continue homeschooling her all the way through, which is going to be a”—she paused, unable to find a fitting word—“a journey,” she said softly. “I’d rather her be in school, but I’m scared.”
Cherry pleaded guilty. Bainbridge’s courthouse is across the street from the board of education, and both buildings overlook a small courtyard with two monuments dedicated to Confederate soldiers. At the sentencing hearing, the state solicitor general, Benjamin Harrell, a young, white attorney, played the clips of Cherry hitting Seth and reënacting the encounter the next day. “Praise the Lord for modern technology that allowed us to discover what was really going on in a school here,” he said.
When Cherry testified, she sounded as if she were talking to a job supervisor. “It was definitely inappropriate,” she said. “It was a mistake, and it happened, and it won’t happen again.”
Latoya could barely talk at the hearing, because she was crying so hard. “I no longer have a best friend, because one of those teachers was my best friend’s mama,” she testified. “She didn’t even come tell me. These people from Donalsonville—nobody came to my house.” When Harrell asked her what she thought Cherry’s sentence should be, she said, “I think that Ms. Cherry should get jail time.” She went on, “It’s sickening that two black women—and you already know the struggle that black people have—that you would do that to your own kind.”
The judge sentenced Cherry to a year in jail. Williams-Brown, who attended the hearing, said that, when she heard the sentence, “I cried and I cried and I cried and I cried and I cried.” She thought that Cherry wouldn’t have been punished so severely if she’d been white, but, she said, “I try not to get caught up in that.” Cherry’s mother, Pat Grant, told me, “I am just so discombobulated. My daughter didn’t get her master’s degree to babysit a child. She was on track to become a principal.”
Phyllis Rambo, who had worked for the school district for nearly two decades, was fired. Williams-Brown, who also pleaded guilty, was sentenced to probation. Harrell told me, “I saw a lot of outrage that there wasn’t more that could be done against them. People around here said, specifically, that all three women in the video were equally bad. They were saying that they should get life. Or even death.”
In an e-mail to the superintendent, Wallace complained that Harrell was “out of control,” and said that people were calling Rambo on the phone and threatening her. Rambo’s daughter Daneisha told me, “It’s tragic. Both parties are hurting—the guilty party and the not-guilty party.”
Latoya rarely left her house. “We all live in the same community, and—ooh, it’s the worst feeling I’ve ever felt,” she said. Her sister-in-law overheard women at church saying that Latoya should be ashamed of herself for ruining her neighbors’ careers. Her brother Nathan, who works at a jail, said that he heard a correction officer telling another officer, “If I were that teacher, I probably would have done the same thing.”
When I visited Cherry in jail, she had been there three months, and had lost twenty-three pounds. Her mother had moved into her house to take care of her daughter, who was nine years old and growing so quickly that, Cherry said, she had “gained the weight that I lost.” Her daughter visited once a week and spoke to her for an hour through a pane of glass. Williams-Brown had visited during Cherry’s first week in jail, but Cherry hasn’t heard from her since. “I can’t mentally get myself to go,” Williams-Brown told me.
I was taken aback by Cherry’s beauty. She had a short pixie haircut and wore navy-blue jail scrubs. We sat at a table in a small cinder-block room, and, for three hours, she methodically narrated each disappointment at Pathways. When she got to the day that she hit Seth, she walked to the corner of the cell, telling me, “This would be the sink,” and imitated herself washing her hands. “And then this force came from behind me,” she said. For the second time, she reënacted hitting Seth. It was as if she were still trying to figure out what exactly she had done to him. She said that both times she’d been shown the video, in the superintendent’s office and at her sentencing hearing, she hadn’t been able to watch.
Cherry recounted the previous half year with almost no reference to her personal life; even when she talked about her regrets, she described them through the lens of professional development. She spoke at length about the support that she expected to be in place for teachers, and said that, without it, “I just had an immediate, instinctual reaction to Seth—it was like I had turned into his mom.” When I asked her about her daughter, she said, “She’s O.K. My mom does a real good job with her. Hold on.” She walked out of the room, toward the bathroom. She came back with a piece of toilet paper three feet long, sat down, bent over her knees, and sobbed.
After a few minutes, she gathered herself completely. She understood that she would never get another job in education, and was contemplating working toward a counselling degree or writing a book called “From the Classroom to the Jailhouse,” which would “help educators not find themselves in the same situation as me.”
Every night, at nine o’clock, Cherry led five or six other inmates in prayer. They sat in a circle and held hands. Cherry said that their requests were often the same: “My prayer is that my children will not be taken away from me.” All the inmates referred to one another by their first names, but they called her Ms. Cherry. She wasn’t sure why, since only a few of them knew that she had been a teacher.
In January, 2018, shortly after the Georgia Advocacy Office requested Seth’s records, the district allowed him to return to his neighborhood school. Leslie Lipson, the lawyer with the office, said that when she becomes involved in students’ cases, for possible inclusion in the class-action suit, the student is often transferred out of GNETS. (The state has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. A spokesman for the attorney general said that, “as a rule of thumb, we are unable to comment on pending litigation.”)
Seth entered first grade at Seminole County Elementary School. His records there describe him as “unable to perform a task for 5 minutes without engaging in physically aggressive or otherwise inappropriate behaviors.” For “strengths,” his records say that he “has remarkable sense of rhythm.” After three weeks, he was suspended for spitting at his teacher. Latoya said that, in February, Seth pinched his teacher several times and was suspended a second time, for six days. Latoya asked MaKenzie’s mother to recommend a good homeschooling curriculum, and withdrew him from school.
In the past fifteen years, the number of black families in the country choosing to homeschool their children has more than doubled. Cheryl Fields-Smith, a professor at the University of Georgia, studies why black families in Georgia increasingly make this choice. “One of the dominant themes was a desire to protect their children from being labelled a troublemaker, or having a special-education label placed on them,” she told me. According to the Department of Education, students of color are roughly twice as likely to be identified as having an emotional disorder as white children and nearly three times as likely to be labelled cognitively impaired. (In 2015, four decades of research was challenged by a widely cited series of articles by Paul Morgan, a professor of education at Penn State, and George Farkas, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who argued that if environmental factors, such as poverty and single parenthood, are taken into account, students of color are actually underrepresented in special education. But other scholars have criticized the authors for overgeneralizing and relying on variables that could be subject to racial bias.)
Chris Vance, a special-education attorney in Atlanta, said that parents who can afford a lawyer’s fees are usually successful in fighting to prevent their children from going to GNETS. They will often hire a psychologist to analyze the student’s behavior in class and then draft a plan that allows the student to stay in the general classroom for most of the day and work with an aide who has been trained to understand how the student’s disability affects the way he learns. But, she said, “those who can’t afford an attorney will often homeschool their children, and so it becomes no education.”
Latoya begins Seth’s lessons at eight each morning with the song “Jesus Loves Me,” which he sings exuberantly, clapping and stomping his feet. On a recent morning, Latoya sat on the floor with a pile of frayed manila folders from Easy Peazy, an online Christian homeschooling curriculum that MaKenzie’s cousin uses. Latoya’s mother, who recently had a stroke, was on the sofa watching TV.
Latoya instructed Seth to recite words pictured on flash cards. Repeating the words required a vigorous windup: Seth arched his back, pumped his arms in the air, and then shouted out the words so loudly that his five-year-old cousin, Keylan, who came to the lesson uninvited, covered his ears. When Latoya told him that he’d done a good job, he clapped and yelled, “Yay, yay, yay, yay!” The celebration went on for too long. “Learn!” his sister, Sahrenety, who was on summer vacation, told him. “Do your work.” She sat on the couch next to Latoya’s niece, who also gave Seth pep talks.
After declaring that “I” is for igloo, Seth began rolling on the ground. Latoya called her brother Lawrence, and put him on speakerphone. He usually came over to play basketball when the lesson was over, around ten-thirty. “I won’t come if you don’t learn,” Lawrence repeatedly warned Seth. Seth got to “K” before everyone gave up. Latoya was sweating, and her niece was snoring loudly on the couch. A few of Latoya’s customers were already in the kitchen.
Latoya realizes that she cannot keep homeschooling Seth, and she plans to move back to Atlanta next month. She wants Seth to attend a public school where the day is structured and predictable and the classroom aides understand the sensory triggers for his outbursts. She doesn’t mind if he’s in a special-education classroom, provided he has some contact with nondisabled students during the day. She’s not even opposed to the idea of eventually placing him in a school for children with autism, as long as the segregation serves a therapeutic purpose. She discovered a specialized school north of Atlanta, the Lionheart School, that she aspires to send Seth to one day, if she can afford it. The director of the school told me, “When people talk about ‘behaviors,’ the assumption is that the child is doing something bad, but we see behaviors as communicative. If the child is punished for screaming, then we’ve missed an opportunity to get to know this child and what he is telling us.”
More than anything, Latoya wants to get out of Donalsonville. She told me, “I feel like everybody here is looking at me, like, Why would she do that to those teachers? She knows her son is bad.”
Whenever Latoya goes to town, she must drive past Phyllis Rambo’s house. Recently, when we passed it, her sister Cecelia, who was driving, became sombre. “That’s Phyllis,” she said, pointing to a one-story brick house. Behind the house was an old swing set where Latoya used to play with Rambo’s daughter Daneisha.
Latoya had started talking to Daneisha again, after Daneisha wrote her a letter describing how important their friendship was to her. For months, friends from their neighborhood had been urging her to forgive Rambo, too, and over time Latoya had begun to soften toward her. “I think Phyllis was basically just trying to fit in,” she told me. “She needed people to vent to at work.” (Rambo did not want to talk to me.)
Latoya had never been close with Melissa Williams-Brown—Latoya described her as having been, in high school, part of the “fancy crowd, the kids who basically have what you call a good life”—but, as she had learned more about the GNETS system, she had begun to see Williams-Brown’s mistakes in a different light. “I’m not upset with Melissa,” she told me. “I’m not even upset with Ms. Cherry. I’m just upset with the fact that, hey, if that was your”—referring to Wallace—“child, it wouldn’t have happened like that.” She cried quietly. “The black women got the blame. I just don’t feel like it’s right. You’ve got three teachers being slandered when they were only doing what you allowed them to do.”
In June, Seth and MaKenzie had a playdate. MaKenzie often asked for Seth, but she lived nearly an hour away, and they hadn’t seen each other for seven months. When Erica parked in front of Latoya’s house, MaKenzie looked up from a magazine and saw Seth sitting under the carport, beside a washing machine.
“I love you, Seth,” she said, as she walked up the driveway. “I love this little boy.” She combed her fingers through his dreadlocks and commented on how long they had grown. He looked away, smiling. Then he walked toward his uncle, who was mowing the lawn. MaKenzie stood still, wringing her hands. “What’s wrong with you?” she said gently.
Erica apologized to Latoya in advance for the language that MaKenzie might use. “When she’s nervous, her words really come out,” she said. “Whatever is on Kenzie’s mind she’s going to tell you.” It quickly became clear that one of the words that MaKenzie had difficulty controlling was the N-word. Erica was accustomed to people making comments like “That little girl needs her butt tore up.” But Latoya assured her that it was fine, even when Seth began repeating the word.
In the carport, they listened to the country song “Meant to Be,” by Bebe Rexha and the Florida Georgia Line. MaKenzie stood under a tree and swayed her arms in the air. Seth walked over to her and began doing the two-step, rocking his hips and shoulders from side to side. Their rhythms were familiar to each other; they had often danced together at school, while their teachers were talking. On Cherry’s last day at Pathways, MaKenzie had sashayed toward Seth, stood behind him, and begun moving his arms to the beat of a nursery song, leading him in a kind of square dance.
Throughout the afternoon, MaKenzie repeatedly told Seth that she loved him and kissed his cheek or the top of his head. Latoya took solace in believing that MaKenzie’s warmth may have counteracted the harsh tone of his teachers. She was less concerned about the physical violence than about the effects of listening to them talk. “He can hear five conversations at a time and remember every word—that’s one of his autistic traits,” she told me. “If you call him bad, he’s going to believe it. He’s going to become exactly who you say he is.” ♦
A previous version of this article cited imprecise critiques by scholars who said that gender had been omitted from Morgan and Farkas’s analysis. Morgan and Farkas, who have replicated their findings in several studies, included gender as a covariate and used—but did not rely on—teachers’ subjective assessments.
Rachel Aviv joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2013. She has written about criminal justice, psychiatry, education, foster care, and homelessness, among other subjects.