State: Disproportionate Number of Blacks in Special Ed
Deborah Bulkeley, AP, Clarion-Ledger (MS), Mar. 1
Mississippi education officials say they are aware a disproportionate number of black children have been routed to special-education programs in public schools and are working to correct the problem.
Discrimination is likely one reason, but educators say the root of the problem goes much deeper.
“It most certainly is a national issue of grave concern to all of us,” said Jane Browning, executive director of the Learning Disability Association of America. “It’s more complicated than a simple case of racial prejudice.”
Melody Bounds, director of the Office of Special Education at the Mississippi Department of Education, said cases where unusually high numbers of black children are assigned to special-education programs are more obvious in Southern states, “but we do have the largest population of black students as well.”
“The biggest issue is making sure we have schools that are responsive to the needs of all students,” Bounds said. “Making sure good instruction is taking place, making sure teachers know how to differentiate instruction to satisfy of a diverse group of learners.”
She said educators must make sure the assessment technique used to identify students with disabilities is nondiscrimina-tory.
Department of Education figures reviewed by The Associated Press show blacks, who account for only slightly more than half of the state’s public school population, made up about 54 percent of students ages 6 to 21 in special-education programs during 2002, the most current year for which data is available.
In addition, blacks accounted for about two-thirds of the so-called self-contained students — those who spend at least 60 percent of the school day outside regular classrooms.
Mississippi mirrors a national trend. In 2002, about 12 percent of the nation’s black children ages 6 to 21 received special-education services, compared with about 8 percent of Hispanic and 9 percent of white students, according to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs.
Nationally, an estimated 10 million blacks ages 6 to 21 made up about 15 percent of the nation’s population in 2002 but accounted for about 31 percent of the self-contained special education population, according to the OSEP documents.
In addition, these students were more likely to be classified as having a severe disability — such as mental retardation or emotional disturbance — than children of other races.
Gwendolyn Webb-Johnson, assistant professor of special education at the University of Texas at Austin, said many black students are mislabeled because of a lack of cultural understanding.
“Special education is a service, but it becomes a place to remove kids that are a challenge,” said Webb-Johnson. “It’s easier, unfortunately in our school systems, to remove African-American children, and place them in special education … away from the general education population.”
Browning said socioeconomic status plays a part because black children are more likely to be poor than white children; and poor children are less likely to receive early-childhood resources such as reading at home or preschool.
A child starting first grade without having that educational background could be placed in special education, instead of getting extra help to catch up, she said.
Browning said early intervention can greatly reduce, or in some cases eliminate the impact of a learning disability on a child’s academic career.
LeRon Jackson, a Jackson State University student with cerebral palsy, knows firsthand the challenges many black students with disabilities faced in public schools.
Jackson, who takes a warm smile and his wheelchair to schools and businesses across Mississippi to promote an understanding of people with disabilities, says there have been positive changes.
The 25-year-old sophomore said in high school a substitute teacher who asked him if he’d lost his way from the special-education classroom. Jackson started his elementary school education in self-contained classes before his mother, Hollia Johnson, found out he could be placed him in a regular education setting.
“I got a fuller education when I got out of self-contained classes,” Jackson said. “I was getting taught more at home than while in the (self-contained) special-education class.”