September 26 — 3:58 pm, 2011

Why are all the Black kids in special ed? Or, why you should always demand a second opinion

This guest blog post was written by Sonja Kerr and Dave Hanyok of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.


As demonstrated in study after study and acknowledged in the text of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), minority students (and especially Black students) are disproportionately diagnosed with disabilities and placed in special education or lowest-level courses.

Many people don’t understand how this is possible. They think: Isn’t it clear when someone has a disability? Can’t you just administer an IQ test, look at test scores, and be done with it?

Unfortunately, the evaluation process is much more complicated than that – and as it’s actually implemented, it leaves a lot more room for human error.

The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, in conjunction with the law firm DLA Piper, recently filed a brief (link has been updated, 9-28) in the case Blunt et al vs. Lower Merion School District. The brief publicly documents the evidence behind the lawsuit’s allegations that the Lower Merion School District discriminated against the plaintiffs by inappropriately placing them in special education programs and the lowest level classes on the basis of race. The brief tells a powerful story and exposes the mechanisms through which racism can creep into the classroom.

The problem starts with low expectations.

The District’s own consultant on minority achievement, hired to help solve their persistent achievement gap, has admitted that teachers and administrators in the District subscribe to racial stereotypes. In fact, the Lower Merion School District gave a presentation in 2010 that included the following:

“Many African American students prefer:

  • More kinesthetic / tactile learning.

  • Subdued lighting rather than bright lighting. […]

  • Rely heavily on visual input rather than auditory input. […]

  • React intensely to being praised or criticized […]

  • Avert their eyes while being confronted about behavior.”

Amazingly, the Lower Merion School District used this list of blatant stereotypes to train its teachers. From the beginning, teachers in this affluent, mostly White District expect their Black students to be less intelligent – so it comes as no surprise that they end up in special education far more frequently.

These low expectations also lead to bad evaluations. For almost all of the plaintiff students, initial evaluations for special education were later found to be incorrect, with the District’s psychologist sometimes making diagnoses that weren’t even supported by his own data.

The District also performed many of the evaluations without parental permission, often failed to follow proper procedure, and even destroyed the testing protocols used to evaluate the students. Ultimately, the students’ placements seem to have been decided not on the basis of high-quality psycho-educational data, but rather on the basis of subjective determination. Considering the District’s long history of segregation, racial tension, and disparate treatment, the Black student population of Lower Merion has plenty reason to distrust the District’s subjective determinations.

The District essentially diagnosed students with disabilities that never existed, needlessly segregating the students from age-appropriate, high-level curricula. The District’s actions have done irreversible harm to these students. They were:

  • removed from core classes,

  • denied the opportunity to take electives including foreign languages, and

  • relegated to classes that assigned them what one student referred to as “baby work.”

Teachers and administrators, however, repeatedly ignored complaints from the students and their parents about the inadequacy of the coursework.

While this use of special education to re-segregate schools appears to be less of a problem in Philadelphia, the Law Center’s work there suggests that the evaluation and placement process is no less deficient. Many disabilities simply go unnoticed, evaluations are often haphazard and overlook basic considerations, and too little is done to determine each student’s particular needs.

For example, one of the Law Center’s clients was diagnosed at a young age with ADHD, but years later it was determined that her apparently inattentive behavior was actually the result of severe hearing loss – and all the while, she could barely understand anything her teachers said.

Understandably, parents generally trust the diagnosis given to their child by school psychologists. And unfortunately, even when they disagree with the experts, they rarely know that they have the right to disagree.

If parents disagree with an evaluation, they can – and should – request a re-evaluation by an independent evaluator at the District’s expense. A child’s education is too important to be left to a haphazard evaluation, anecdotal evidence, or one person’s subjective determination.

The Public Interest Law Center represents students in the Philadelphia region in special education due process hearings and lawsuits, and it offers training in special education law for parents, advocates, and educators.


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