African American boys make up 59 percent of students enrolled in “emotional support” programs in Philadelphia but less than a third of the general student population. They are six times more likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed than White girls.
White girls are four times more likely than Black boys to be identified as mentally gifted.
Highlighting similar statistics in her incoming convocation speech in August, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said, “The research clearly shows us that for young men of color, particularly African American and Latino … a special education label, especially ‘emotionally disturbed,’ becomes a life sentence, causing many … to drop out of school early and enter the criminal justice system.”
Overrepresentation of students of color in special education is a reality nationwide. Many say racial biases among those who refer and evaluate students for special education are a factor.
“When a child of color is bored and they act out, [school authorities] assume it’s a behavioral problem,” says Cecilia Thompson, chairperson of the Right to Education Task Force of Philadelphia. “I believe [the student] could be mentally gifted, but the mindset is on emotional support.”
The tendency to identify disruptive behavior as a sign of more severe disability may result from cultural gaps between teachers and students. White teachers in urban school districts unfamiliar with the language and survival strategies many students acquire outside of school are more likely to make inappropriate referrals, research suggests.
Studies indicate the risk of students being identified with a disability varies by race, even controlling for the effects of class.
Disproportions are most pronounced in the high-incidence or “judgmental” categories: emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, and mildly mentally retarded, which require less medical or psychological professional oversight.
But poverty also contributes to the likelihood of disability. “It’s a multifaceted thing,” says Len Rieser, co-director of the Education Law Center. “There can’t be a single ‘why.’”
The national Civil Rights Project concluded in a 2002 report that unconscious racial discrimination by school authorities, resource inequities, biased methods of evaluation, pressures of high-stakes testing on teachers, and the dynamic between parents of color and school administrators all contribute to ethnic and gender disparities in special education.
An example illustrates how the inequalities associated with poverty can contribute to faulty decisions by individuals and lead to disproportions. A teacher in a stressed, high-poverty school may have more students who need extra attention but fewer resources outside of special education. Special education is then seen as the only supportive environment, and teachers are more likely to make referrals.
A District official observed that often it is the parents who want an evaluation. “We’re still in the mindset that there’s something special about special education,” says Linda Williams, administrator for the District’s Office of Specialized Services (OSS), “that it’s a place and not a service.”
To address overrepresentation, the District has introduced professional development for school psychologists that will “build their skills, especially around areas of culture,” Williams says.
The District is also promoting inclusion and a coteaching model, which integrates students with and without special needs in one classroom led by both a grade teacher and a special education teacher.
Decatur Elementary in the Northeast is “a model school for inclusion practices,” Williams says. The school’s principal, Charles Connor, believes the number of referrals went down when special education was no longer a separate, restricted environment. Because general education teachers remain responsible for the students they refer, Connor says, special education is no longer a way to unload difficult-to-teach students.
Local advocates believe most parents don’t understand that overrepresentation of children of color in special education is a systemwide problem. If they did, parents might be able to make better decisions for their own children.
“It’s the ‘Why me?’ syndrome,” Thompson says. “[Parents] think it’s just them.”
And they don’t always exercise their rights in the process. “They think the psychological evaluation is the beall end-all,” Thompson says. But she adds that parents’ role can be crucial in combating misguided placements if they have the right information.