New York Law School

Black Youth in the Special Education System: Overrepresented or Underrepresented?

For years it has been a truism that, due to over-identification and racial bias, school districts have disproportionately funneled Black students into the special education system. Racial justice advocates, education leaders and researchers have asserted that school districts often use special education placement as a way to segregate black students from their peers. When these students are placed in special or remedial education programs, students of average or above-average intelligence quickly fall behind their peers, creating a wide education gap and obstacles to success that will persist for many years.

In 1997, when reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Congress specifically declared it illegal to misidentify Black students as needing special education when such services are unneeded, forcing states to adopt policies and procedures to prevent and monitor inappropriate over-identification or disproportionate representation by race and ethnicity. Inappropriate identification occurs when a school wrongly classifies a student as in need of special education, often due to racial bias, cultural bias in testing, or as a means of handling student behavioral issues. School districts found exceeding expected percentages due to inappropriate identification are required to allocate funding to reduce that number through early intervention programs that help these children when they are younger, rather than segregating them into special educational programs.

Despite these federal mandates, Black children are still 1.4 times more likely than White children to receive special education. For example, in a school where 15 percent of the students are Black, on average they would make up 20 percent of the special-education students. This disparity is even worse in many inner-city school districts. In Philadelphia, schools classified Black students as having special needs at almost twice the rate of White students.

However, recently there has been much debate as to whether racial disparities in special education programs should be embraced, and whether the federally mandated special education policies/percentages in regards to racial disparity cause more harm than good. A new study published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) suggests that schools have actually been identifying too few minority students for placement in special education, as a means to avoid being labeled as racially bias. The researchers state that Black children are “far more likely to be exposed to the gestational, environmental and economic risk factors that often result in disabilities.” About 65 percent of Black children, compared with about 30 percent of White children, live in families with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line. Black children are also about twice as likely to be born prematurely. Additionally, from 1985 to 2000, about 80 percent of Black children grew up in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods characterized by widespread unemployment, racial segregation, poverty, single-parent households and welfare. The researchers also report that 36 percent inner city Black children have elevated lead in their blood, as opposed to 4 percent for suburban White children.

Due to high exposure to the above risk factors, which have been linked to disabilities, the researchers suggest that Black children should actually be represented at higher rates when compared to their White peers. According to the researchers, “The last thing we need is to compound these widespread disparities in disability diagnosis and treatment by making school officials reluctant to refer black children for special-education eligibility evaluations out of fear of being labeled racially biased.”

However, critics of this study suggest that the researchers are simply making blanket statements that do not capture the complexity of segregation in special education. It ignores the decades of research, including data from the entire public-school population, which has demonstrated special education being used to segregate unwanted students. These “unwanted” students, typically Black, are often on the same intellectual level as most of their peers. However, due to both explicit and subtle racial biases, minor behavioral issues or signs of disengagement from the classroom are treated as grounds for referring Black students into special education programs at higher rates than their White peers.

According to Russell Skiba, a professor in counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University whose research is cited throughout the study published by AERA, the report itself acknowledged that the conclusions were very limited in that it only looks at students through middle school, rather than high school. Additionally, much of the data used is drawn from surveys of teachers.

However, teachers have historically shown bias in interpreting student behavior based on race. As we have previously discussed on the Racial Justice Project blog, this is known as cultural deficit thinking. Cultural deficit thinking is the harboring of negative assumptions about the ability, aspirations, and work ethic of students of color. This form of racial discrimination has been linked to Black students being both disproportionately punished in schools, and being funneled into special education programs. The power to categorize these children is in the hands of individual school districts and staff that are often rooted in bias and structural racism. This racism leads to incorrect or hasty determinations of special needs, creating long-term consequences for the student.

To ignore these factors in any study on the racial makeup of special education is to ignore the decades of substantiated findings by the Federal Government, educators, independent researchers, and many more. The notion that Black Youth SHOULD be disproportionately represented in special education programs at even higher rates than what they are now is not only baseless, it is dangerous. It promotes the idea that Black students on average are lesser than their peers, and do not belong on the same educational playing field. This could not be further from the truth, as evidenced by the increased percentage of college degrees conferred to Black students in the last decade. Rather, schools districts should focus on ways to individually evaluate all of their students equally, and not allowing racial or cultural bias to play a part in these assessments (as they often do). Only then can we begin to mend the damage caused by depriving Black students of a proper and challenging educational curriculum.

1 comment on “Black Youth in the Special Education System: Overrepresented or Underrepresented?”

  1. Dr. Joseph Gbaba said:

    My doctoral research at St. Joseph’s University entitled: The Chiandeh Afrocentric Curriculum and Textbook Experience: Exploring Children’s Responses to an Afrocentric Curriculum disproves for the most part that it is just only environmental or economic factors that creating learning and behavioral problems for minority students from poor economic backgrounds and student of color.

    In 2008 I did conducted a qualitative research in a local public elementary school in Philadelphia and worked with children of color ranging from ages 8-11.These children were classified as “learning disabled” and diagnosed with “ADHD”, etc. First I attempted to find out the fund of knowledge they possessed with respect to African history and culture by asking them to write down all they knew. Their responses were very scanty: some wrote only one word (“slavery”), others wrote a sentence or two and could only name one or two African countries–in fact most of the participants thought Africa was a country and not a continent.

    Then the next step I took was to begin to teach the kids about the various climates, the different countries in Africa, the rich cultures and histories of Africa, the extended family ties, respect for elders, parents, peers, and self; taught them the different marriage systems, values, and mores and asked them to share the information they learned from the class with their parents and to also identify with Africans in their neighborhoods. I also taught them about the different types of African foods, costumes, clothes, fashions and asked that they come once in a while in an African attire for the class. I also taught them about village life, farming, etc.

    As the experiment progressed in the third month, it was observed that the children took great interest in learning about their ancestors, they shared their experiences they encountered with Africans in their neighborhoods, and sometimes named African dishes they had; they took pride in wearing African gears to school and developed more interest in reading and writing exercises that required them to express themselves using the knowledge they learned about Africa inside and outside of the classroom. It was observed that their interest in reading culturally relevant literary material improved and they wrote more than when they were asked to write in their normal English classroom.

    I have gone at length to share this wonderful experience with you because I want the world to know that the problem with children of color being classified as “learning disabled” or having behavior and emotional problems is impose upon them by the mainstream curriculum that is mainly eurocentric and that lacks adequate African-centered materials that may motivate children of color to learn in our classrooms. In other words, the education provided for most minority students is not culturally relevant and that for the most part discourages black children from staying focused in school, particularly with they have to be bombarded with the age old tale of “slavery”! Africa has contributed much more to world civilization than slavery of course. Don’t you think?

    Rabbi Prince Joseph Tomoonh-Garlodeyh Gbaba, Sr., Ed. D.

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