Over-Representation of African American Students in Special Education

African American males represent a significantly disproportionate percentage of special education students, particularly in Minnesota. Of the Minnesota students who are sent to highly restrictive school placements, nearly 90% are black and few are ever transferred out of those placements and back into less restrictive settings. As of 2012, two of the most restrictive schools in Minnesota had a combined student population of 10 white students and 133 black students, with the black students being suspended 435 times in just one year.

This disproportionality can be seen primarily in the category of emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD), which is a subjective classification that is given to the students who are deemed unmanageably disruptive but are often not diagnosed with any other disability. In Minnesota, more than four percent of all black students are identified as EBD: a rate that is more than three times the national average and is the highest of any state. Additionally, black students accounted for 30% of all St. Paul students in 2012 but consisted of two-thirds of the EBD program. Unfortunately, those classified as having EBD tend to score well below the regular education students: only four to five percent of black EBD students are testing at their grade level and approximately 40% of EBD students do not graduate from high school.

This overrepresentation is not a new issue in Minnesota or nationally. It reflects decades of racial bias and discrimination. Due to this discrimination, it is much too easy for black males to get into the special education system. In recognition of these long-standing issues, some districts are beginning to take action. In the fall of 2012, St. Paul relocated 270 EBD students out of their highly-restrictive environments and back into mainstream classes. Although the change was difficult for some teachers and the parents of students who were not classified as EBD, it had a clearly positive impact on those students who were previously isolated in restrictive environments: 80% of the students who were transferred were able to spend the majority of their time in those mainstream classes.

Additionally, districts are establishing programs to encourage regular school attendance for black males and their parents as well as summer programs to increase the chances of successfully transitioning into a new school or placement. Finally, schools are beginning to recognize the need to provide black students with challenging coursework and to steer them away from special education services, unless they are truly needed.

Sources:

Race Drives School Labels by Jeffrey Meitrodt for the Star Tribune

District Initiative Aims to Reduce Referral of Black Males to Special Ed by Mark W. Sherman for Special Ed Connection

The African American Male Achievement Initiative