SAN DIEGO — After George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody last summer, special education teacher Francia Pinillos felt the urge to talk to her students about race and social justice.

“There was a complete disturbance in my soul about how this image is going to live on all sorts of media,” she said recently, “and my students are going to see this with no clear opportunities to dissect and talk about what is happening.”

Pinillos has worked for the last seven years at TRACE, a San Diego Unified school that serves about 500 students ages 18-22 who have disabilities.

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The school, which meets at community sites across the district, helps students with disabilities transition from high school to adult life. Pinillos’ students have challenges ranging from autism and learning disorders to intellectual disabilities and deafness.

When she looked for a curriculum that dealt with social justice issues she found plenty — but none written specifically for students with disabilities.

That’s partly why she created what she calls the “Social Justice League,” a group of students at her school who meet weekly by Zoom and discuss a variety of issues, such as Native American land, gender privilege, the representation of disabilities in the media and systemic racism.

So far the group of about 30 students has performed their own poetry at a community reading and practiced what to do if they are stopped by a police officer — which is to raise their hands and say, “I have a disability.”

All the students in Pinillos’ class are minorities, not just because they have disabilities, but also because most are students of color. Most of Pinillos’ students are Hispanic, Black or Filipino.

Yet students with disabilities — whom Pinillos calls “a forgotten minority” — are not always included in social justice conversations, she said.

“The issue is they’re not able to express that they’re also part of these social justice issues,” Pinillos said. “There are Black disabled students; there are poor disabled students. They just have an additional barrier that is a result of a disability that I think is overlooked.”

Some students in the Social Justice League said they joined the group because they want to learn more about people of color and things like Black History Month. Some said they have had racist experiences of their own, including being cussed out or called “a freaking African-American” by a stranger in a store.

“Other people in general are scared of me because I’m a tall Black man,” said Nate Douglas, a second-year TRACE student in the Social Justice League who is 6-foot-3. “But then they realize I’m a chill and kind person.”

When looking for a curriculum at TRACE to use for the Social Justice League, Pinillos said she could only find current events-style articles about events, like the Capitol insurrection, that were adapted for special education.

She created two digital workbooks, one that is an introduction to ethnic studies and another that’s based on the movie and best-selling book “The Hate U Give,” which is about a Black girl who witnesses the fatal police shooting of a childhood friend. Pinillos’ workbook asks students to discuss the difference between the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements and asks them which stages of grief the main character shows.

One reason Pinillos started the class was to help her students realize when they encounter microaggressions or other forms of discrimination.

For example, Pinillos said, the class recently discussed the efforts to stop hate directed toward Asians and Asian Americans. One way they discussed to politely correct misinformation is to tell others that the coronavirus is not called “the China virus.”

“I have to be the conduit for my students to access this kind of social work,” Pinillos said. “So if they’re unaware or they don’t have that full meaning, they’re not going to know how to act. If something happens to them that’s not right, we have to be the reason they’re able to speak up.”

In the Social Justice League Pinillos’ students have learned about how Black people have been segregated in the U.S. The students said they feel similarly upset because people with disabilities have been segregated from people without disabilities.

First-year TRACE student and Social Justice League member Alberto Castaneda, who has a learning disability, said when he was in elementary school, he was put in a separate class for kids with disabilities and he got in trouble for trying to join the general class where his cousin was.

“I feel it was kind of extra of them putting those boundaries on us, because we could function like any other student with or without a learning disability,” Castaneda said.

Students with disabilities often are put in separate classes or schools to receive instruction tailored to their needs, but San Diego Unified and other districts say they have been working in recent years to integrate students with disabilities with their peers rather than segregate them. The idea is to give all students access to quality instruction.

The Social Justice League members said they want others to remember that people with disabilities can have fun and accomplish their goals like anyone else.

“People with or without disabilities … we shouldn’t be separated or segregated,” said Sami Habte, a first-year TRACE student. “I didn’t ask for a disability. I wanna just live my life and live my story.”

Pinillos is working with other support staff at TRACE to expand her social justice class across the school and add more groups and sessions with students next school year.

© 2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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