By: Sharon James Ackah

Children sometimes recount the benefits of virtual school, citing such pleasures as later bedtimes, increased snack breaks, and creative activities such as lunchtime baseball or pop-up outdoor classrooms.  Yet, many children gleefully returned to school and embraced a sense of normalcy as pandemic restrictions relaxed and they reunited with friends, resuming classroom activities. Children may be unfamiliar with the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), that gave rise to the richness of today’s school experiences built upon cultural awareness, inclusion and belonging.  However, it may be that the more isolated scholastic experience of the pandemic, gave many Americans reason to appreciate the legacy of Brown.

Every year, Black History Month offers a time, specifically set aside, to honor the triumphs of African-Americans in the United States. The Supreme Court decision in Brown can be cited among those triumphs as it eradicated the “sanction by law” in discriminatory educational practices.  However, although the case came before the court as a matter of racial segregation, the cogitation of the justices also addressed multiple educational challenges faced by children with disabilities such as exclusion, disparate opportunities and the need for functional life training.  The Brown decision paved the way for parents of children with disabilities to sue educational agencies for discriminatory practices not only based on ethnicity, but also based solely on disabilities. In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) codified the legal right of students with disabilities to a free and appropriate public education, once again affirming the importance of inclusion, belonging and cultural awareness in education irrespective of color, creed or disability.

Under IDEA Part B, States must collect and examine data to determine whether significant disproportionality exist on the basis of race and ethnicity with respect to identification, placement, and discipline of students with disabilities. Regretfully, studies indicate that there remains a strong nexus.  The U.S. Department of Education reports that “Black or African American students with disabilities are more likely to be identified with intellectual disability or emotional disturbance, more likely to receive a disciplinary removal, and less likely to receive educational services in a general classroom setting than all students with disabilities,” (https://sites.ed.gov/osers/2021/08/osep-releases-fast-facts-on-the-race-and-ethnicity-of-children-with-disabilities-served-under-idea-part-b/).  Conversely, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that minority children are less likely to be identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder than white children (https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/addm-community-report/differences-in-children.html).

As Black History month sunsets, Autism Awareness month draws near and again we have the occasion to fully digest the resounding impact of our education laws. Education is a fundamental tenet of society.  All children have a legal right to a free and appropriate public education and children flourish in environments that foster inclusion, belonging and cultural awareness.  In Brown, the Supreme Court described the emotional impact that segregation has on children: “To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone,” (Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)). This sentiment applies equally to children with disabilities. It is therefore incumbent upon parents, advocates, attorneys and educators to uphold the legacy of Brown and ensure equal educational opportunities for all children.

* The views expressed herein, are those of the author and in no way reflect the opinions of the Department of the Air Force or any Governmental Agency.

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Sharon James Ackah

Sharon Ackah is the Chief of Exceptional Family Member (EFM) Legal Assistance and Policy for the Department of the Air Force.  Her mission is to build a special education law capability across the Department.  She provides legal expertise on EFM policy matters, expert counsel to attorneys, training, and client representation in complex special education disputes.

In 1995 Mrs. Ackah attained a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology from the University of Houston and in 1998, a Master’s of Public Health from the University of Texas, School of Public Health.  In 2004, Mrs. Ackah earned her law degree from The George Washington University Law School.  In addition to private practice with the law firm of Eustache & James, she has held positions of leadership in program management and policy development.

Mrs. Ackah became a Department of Defense civilian in 2015 serving as a legal assistance attorney at the United States Military Academy.  She then joined the Office of Soldiers’ Counsel (OSC), where she served as both Medical Evaluation Board and Physical Evaluation Board counsel.  Her awards and decorations include Air Force Senior Civilian of the Quarter, Air Force Senior Civilian of the Year, Civil Service Commendation Medal, Achievement Medal for Civilian Service, The President’s Volunteer Service Award and the OSC Award for Excellence in Client Satisfaction (ICE Award). Mrs. Ackah is married to MAJ (Ret.) Kwansah Ackah and has three sons, Xavier, Josiah and Aiden.

 

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