race and special education

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Seeks Comments on Disabled Students of Color and School Discipline

On Friday, December 8th, in Washington, DC, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold a public briefing: The School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Intersections of Students of Color with Disabilities. This briefing is part of an investigation into school districts’ compliance with federal laws designed to ensure the safety of students of color with disabilities against discrimination, and whether laws adequately protect these students from discriminatory disciplinary actions and policies.

It is important that stakeholders, including parents, opine given this opportunity. As we noted, quoting the NY Civil Liberties Union’s report, in a blog post related to a local hearing on this topic earlier this year, a child who is suspended from school is much more likely to “fall behind in school, be retained a grade, drop out of high school, commit a crime, and become incarcerated as an adult.” NYCLU reports that “[t]he best demographic indicators of children who will be suspended are not the type or severity of the crime, but the color of their skin, their special education status, the school they go to, and whether they have been suspended before.”

The briefing begins at 9am and will be available to all via live-stream and a call-in line (listen only): 1-800-479-9001, conference ID 836-2937. If you happen to be in the DC area and wish to attend, you can find information about how to do so in the Commission’s meeting notice.

If you wish to submit comments for consideration as the Commission prepares its report, they are accepting submissions for 30 days following Friday's briefing and forum. You can email your comments to schooldiscipline@usccr.gov.  It’s important to note that any comments that the Commission receives become a part of the public record. A full privacy statement is available on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ page about public comments.

Understanding Initial Referrals for Special Education: 2 New Reports Provide Insight

by Ashley Barad

The Department of Education recently published its Annual Report on Special Education, which includes data on initial referrals for special education evaluations between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016. In one table, the report specifically focuses on race and ethnicity, revealing that students of color made up the majority of initial referrals for special education. Of the 24,252 students initially referred to special education, 86.4% were students of color: 47.63% were Hispanic, 29.38% were Black, 7.21% were Asian, 2.18% were classified as “other”.

While the Department of Education’s report shows that teachers refer more students of color to special education, it does not delve into how or why they do so. A new study by NYU Professor Rachel Fish, published in September in the journal Social Science Research, gives a more detailed explanation of how teachers’ racial biases impact their understandings of students’ special needs.

By surveying 70 elementary school teachers from a city in the northeast, Fish illuminates how race alone can change an educator’s view of a student’s special needs. Teachers who participated in the survey read through fictional profiles of male students whose names were meant to signal their race, and determined what types of special services, if any, these students required.

The study revealed that when teachers in the study classified students of color as having special needs, they did so based on behavioral or emotional – not academic – factors.

Rachel Fish, the author of the study, told Chalkbeat that when teachers classify students of color as having special needs based on emotional/behavior issues instead of academic deficits, these students suffer from the social stigma of carrying this label. While it is important that students who need special services receive help in their schools, we must consider the unintended consequences of labeling students’ needs as either academic or emotional behavioral, and we must consider what leads teachers to classify students one way or another. 

However, it is important to note that Fish is not aiming to single out teachers as being racist or biased. As she told The Huffington Post, “This is really just giving us a window into biases in our entire society,” she went on. “It’s not something that’s unique to teachers.”

Although this study is limited based on its small sample size and use of fictional student profiles, it is notable because it illuminates an essential issue in our schooling system. By taking note of both the Department of Education’s recent report and Fish’s study, we can gain insight into important factors at play in the world of special education. 

Works Cited

NYC Department of Education Local Law 27 0f 2015 Annual Report on Special Education. Rep. New York   City Department of Education, 1 Nov. 2016. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.

Klein, Rebecca. "Why Some Kids Are Put In Special Education And Others In Gifted Programs." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 1 Nov. 2016. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.

Zimmerman, Alex. "When Is a Student 'gifted' or 'disabled'? A New Study Shows Racial Bias Plays a Role in Deciding." Chalkbeat. N.p., 20 Oct. 2016. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.