Mildred Broadway was a single, black mother with a powerful presence. Though she had diabetes and several other health problems, she devoted herself to the needs of her many children. Early in her married life she adopted two young boys as toddlers, one year apart, before her husband died. Over time, she become the mother to nieces and nephews within the family as time and need required. There was always a house full of children, a beautiful, well kept home in the solidly middle class part of Sicklerville. As soon as her boys entered Kindergarten, they were classified as learning disabled. Years passed and then came 8th grade.
Of the two boys, Troy was the oldest. He had a finely chiseled face, a small, wiry body and a soft voice that was often difficult to understand. But when he looked at you, an old, tired man peered out from some place long ago. Troy could not read beyond a second grade level, had all kinds of perceptual and processing problems, and was diagnosed with ADHD. Troy was intelligent, but had often been educated with retarded students. And what nobody knew until much later was that he was blind in one eye from a head injury he got before his adoption. He had been a physically and mentally abused infant before Mildred chose him as her son.
Troy was good with his hands and could fix anything. His favorite activity, though, was designing and building houses. He had a strong esthetic sense of beauty and wanted to learn how to be an architect and build homes. By his 8th grade year he had been given six different classifications from various building child study teams. The one that never seemed to matter much was Learning Disabled. The fact that he could barely read and write did not seem to matter. The preferred classifications were Socially Maladjusted and Emotionally Disturbed. In his county is was the consensus that it would not be long before he went to jail, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Troy got into trouble with kids he hung with and was known by the local police - usually involving theft and related crimes. He was never violent, not talking much about what and why he did what he did. Later testing confirmed severe communication problems in both receptive and expressive language. When police and local judges asked him questions, they would say, “Now, Troy. Answer my question NOW. Why are you hesitating? Got a guilty conscience? Hurry up.” We learned later that Troy sometimes confessed to something he had not done because he did not understand the question and witnesses placed him someplace else. Mildred grounded him and gave every punishment she knew. Nothing worked. But she never gave up on her son and continued her search to find help for him.
In 8th grade, Troy was placed residentially, seeing his family on weekends. For the first time he began to feel success because of the structure of a school within a therapeutic setting. He received 1-1 reading instruction. He received language therapy. He received counseling. He began to get all A’s on his report card for the first time in his life. This residential school was funded by two sources: the school paid for the academic portion, Human Services paying for the residential and therapy piece. Mildred got regular parent training and counseling. At the end of 8th grade, the residential school wanted to keep him one more year before returning him to a day school. Mildred agreed, but there was never an IEP meeting. By the end of June of that year, some secret arrangement took place that we could never uncover. He was quickly discharged from the residential school, his mother told to come and pick him up because somebody else needed his bed. The next call came from the county vocational school. Somehow, Troy had ended up on their roster of students coming in for the next school year. Even after 12 trial days we never had that explained. Two days after he was home, Mildred got a phone call from the bus company, telling her that he was scheduled for pick up on the first day of school to go to the county vocational school. Neither Troy nor his mother wanted him to go there. They had never been invited to an IEP meeting either before he left the residential school or before the call to take him to the vocational school. Mildred tried to find an attorney, literally banging on doors and doing sit-ins. She did everything a parent could do to keep Troy out of the vocational school and to get him back in the only school where he experienced success. The vocational school threatened to file truancy charges unless Troy came to school on the first day. That was the last thing either parent or child wanted, but they knew that if he went there, it was the last stop before jail. Then they found me.
Troy’s vocational school had two buildings. The main building had a curving walk and flowered borders, while the smaller one behind that had no decoration of any kind. The differences between the two made a visitor think that the one in back was used to store equipment. When I made my site visit there, however, one unmistakable fact was clear. All the black students were in the smaller building in the back. The white students were put in the main building. As Mildred, Troy and I worked on his case to get it ready to go to hearing, we learned that the vocational school was cited by both State and Federal government for violation of civil rights based on racial discrimination .The school was supposed to be under a corrective action plan supervised by the New Jersey Department of Education. Of course no changes occurred, but boxes on a variety of forms were checked to show compliance. For Troy, this blatant racial discrimination meant that he could never learn about the one thing he cared for- housing design and construction. Those classes, you see, were in the main building. Troy was not allowed in the main building because of what was described as “disruptive behavior”. What was that behavior? He asked why he could not go into the main building to take the building course. By this time, Troy was 18 and did not trust anybody, including me.
As a result of filing for due process, Troy was comprehensively reevaluated. But it was all too late. He was placed on medication for hyperactivity and depression. The testimony from school district employees was devastating and showed their complete lack of caring and competence. Everybody in the district should have gone to jail for child abuse and racism. They hung Troy from a tree branch as surely as Billy Holiday described Strange Fruit. Even though we won the trial, we lost Troy. The last time I saw him was at his IEP meeting after the hearing decision. It was held in his jail where he was serving a sentence for burglary. I’d never been in an actual jail before and felt frightened. Mildred patted me on the shoulder and said it would be OK, that I’d get used to it. I asked Troy how he was doing as his Mom unfolded freshly fried chicken from tin foil. He said jail was not too bad because he knew what to expect each day. And he was learning to read.
Mildred wanted to sue the local and vocational school for punitive damages. We found a lawyer to take the case pro bono. But the cultural divide between the lawyer and Mildred was too great. The lawyer was scared of Mildred and Mildred thought the lawyer was a wimp. After a while they withdrew the case because they could not work together. Meantime, Mildred watched her children be systematically destroyed by the school district. Once Troy was arrested and incarcerated, they went after his brother. It was a repeat of what had happened with Troy. It was all too much for Mildred, whose blood pressure and diabetes took a terrible toll. This queen of a woman, the champion hugger of all time, refused to cry. She used profanity to replace tears and aggression to bandage a broken heart. We promised each other to share chicken batter recipes, but we never did. The last time we spoke, her girls were now classified. And she worried about whether or not they would end up in the back building of the vocational school- the one where you go before jail.