What They Did to the Kids

What They Did to the Kids
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In 1972, future Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera rose to national prominence for his expose of the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island. In his report, Rivera documented an environment of horrifying neglect and abuse. Naked children with severe developmental disabilities were on the floor moaning, some of them smeared with feces. Rivera described the children as “human vegetables in a detention camp.” I first watched the short documentary when I started teaching special education eight years ago. I was surprised to learn that before 1975, only about 1 in 5 children with disabilities in the United States attended public school, and many were in overcrowded state institutions that provided no education or training.

What the Willowbrook report made clear to me was that education rights for students with disabilities were relatively new and had been won through years of advocacy. The passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was supposed to guarantee them a federal right to a free and appropriate education. But in March 2020 these children were abruptly cut off from basic services, and their legal rights were effectively revoked. At the time, I was teaching low-income students of color in the Bay Area. Most of my students did not have internet access at home and many of them relied on school for meals, health services, and counseling. What could be more “essential,” I wondered, than school?

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