Special Education and Minorities
New York Times
November 20, 2005



IN the debate over the achievement gap between white and minority children in Connecticut, the overrepresentation of black and Hispanic children in special education classes is among the most sensitive subjects. In communities throughout the state, minority children are carrying around labels, like emotionally disturbed and intellectually disabled (formerly called mentally retarded), that do not accurately describe them, special education experts said. They said the students are being placed in special education because educators are misinterpreting behavior problems and misunderstanding cultural differences.

The issue has forced some school districts to change the way they spend money on special education, pushed the state to increase monitoring of special education placement, and prompted administrators to train educators from districts where the numbers are particularly skewed on how to deal with racial and ethnic differences in the classroom. "It's one of what I would call Connecticut's dirty little secrets in education," said John Brittain, a civil rights lawyer who worked on the landmark Connecticut education case, Sheff v. O'Neill, that addressed segregation in public schools.

Since the state began tracking the disproportions in 2002, the disparities in special education placement among different racial and ethnic groups have decreased in many school districts. But data compiled by the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems, an organization funded by the federal government, showed that the overall disproportion in the state grew worse from 1999 to 2004. No one race should have a disproportionate number of disabled children, said Dr. Nancy Cappello, an education consultant for the State Department of Education. "You would expect it to be proportionate to the demographics of the community," she said. "There should be no overrepresentation."

Experts who have studied the issue in Connecticut and throughout the country said disabilities are often misdiagnosed in minority children, especially boys. Children who are placed in special education for the wrong reasons face stigmas that are difficult to overcome, psychologists said. "The child begins to see himself that way," said Dr. Jocelyn Mackey, an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Connecticut State University who has worked as a school psychologist in numerous Connecticut schools.

The issue of overrepresentation of black and Hispanic children has received particular scrutiny in some of the state's cities, but it also exists in smaller towns. This year, two municipalities, Norwalk and Windham, faced sanctions because their policies and procedures for placing children in special education did not pass muster with the state.

In Norwalk, black students made up more than 36 percent of the population of special education students in the 2004-5 school year, when the student body was about 25 percent black, according to statistics from the state education department.

In Windham, Hispanic students, who were 58 percent of the student body, made up nearly 64 percent of the special education population and nearly 70 percent of students classified as having a speech or language impairment.

Paul K. Perzanoski, the superintendent in Windham, said the town's numbers may seem skewed, but a review of the district's special education placements indicated that the vast majority were correct; high numbers, he said, do not necessarily mean that the placements were wrong. He said that some students had been misidentified and that the district was making progress in training teachers, improving assessments and intervening early in difficult cases.

Salvatore Corda, the Norwalk superintendent, was not available for comment.

In some districts the differences were even starker. In Hartford, for instance, Hispanics were more than four times as likely as whites to be identified as having a learning disability. In West Hartford, blacks were more than five times as likely as whites to be diagnosed as having an emotional disturbance.

Over all, blacks and Hispanics were 18 percent more likely than whites to land in special education in Connecticut in the 2004-5 school year, according to the state. Black students, in addition, were more than twice as likely to be identified as having an emotional disturbance or an intellectual disability than their white peers were.

By no means is this a concern only in Connecticut. Disproportions in the racial makeup of special education classes exist all over the country. Indeed, Congress made monitoring disproportions in special education one of the priorities in its reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act last year.

Connecticut is not considered one of the states with the most egregious disproportions, said Troy R. Justesen, the acting director for the Office of Special Education Programs in the federal Department of Education. As of 2003, the most recent year for which federal data was available, the percentage of black students in special education in Connecticut was just under the national average. Connecticut, however, had a higher percentage of its Hispanic students in special education than all but five states.

These sorts of discrepancies first gained widespread attention about five years ago, when the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University released a study on the issue. A class action lawsuit against the state that was settled in 2002 also addressed some of these issues. Since then, overrepresentation has inspired robust debates among educators and inspired new policies that aim to eliminate the disproportions.

Experts point to a handful of reasons why the disproportions exist. Teachers, social workers and psychologists often have to make subjective decisions on whether a child should receive special education services. Those decisions, along with the tests children take to determine their intellectual abilities, offer numerous opportunities for bias to creep into the process, psychologists said. Educators, for instance, can misinterpret cultural cues as evidence of an emotional or intellectual disability, said Dr. Mackey of Southern Connecticut State University.

Some of the tests designed to determine a child's intelligence have also been culturally biased, various psychologists and policy makers said.

Merva Jackson, a social worker and the executive director of the African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities, a Hartford nonprofit group that advocates for parents and calls attention to overrepresentation, said she has seen cultural cues be misinterpreted. One mother, for instance, showed her a school evaluation that noted that her son liked to play with his cousin, whom the child described as "bad," Ms. Jackson said. The evaluator interpreted the statement as evidence that the mother had allowed the child to be exposed to "negative influences," not realizing that the child was using "bad" as a slang term that essentially meant "cool."

"It really started to speak loudly to the fact that people involved didn't understand our community," Ms. Jackson said.

Ms. Jackson, whose son was determined to be emotionally disturbed, started her organization in 1999 to help black parents in Hartford understand these issues.

For Hispanic students who are first learning English, problems withlanguage sometimes are misinterpreted as disabilities, said Dr. June Malone, director of the early-learning division at Action for Bridgeport Community Development, an organization that provides Head Start programs. Dr. Malone said she has seen children who are "cognitively intact" graduate from her program and be placed in special education classes when all they needed was more language instruction. Statistics show blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be placed in various categories of special education in Bridgeport over the last three years.

"If a child speaks another language, they get placed in special education," Dr. Malone said.

Some said the real problems start early in a child's education. Jean Smith, a former social worker from Bridgeport, said attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was diagnosed in her daughter. She said her daughter and other minority students could remain in general education if their problems had been addressed earlier.

"Kids like her who are right on the borderline, if they had a little more attention and smaller class sizes, they wouldn't have to be in the system," she said.

Educators in urban districts, burdened with packed classrooms, often don't intervene early enough to deal with the problems of minority children, Dr. Malone said. As they approach adolescence, the students act out their frustration, she said. That can intimidate teachers.

"Many times, I believe the staff and faculty are afraid of boys of color," Dr. Malone said. "The simplest way to deal with it is to teach the kids who are easy to teach and warehouse the most difficult ones."

Once the child is referred to the committee, oversight is sometimes too lax, said Dr. Jay Gottlieb, a professor at Steinhardt School of Education at New York University who has studied racial disproportions in special education at schools in Connecticut.

"Committees have not done a good job of refining teacher referrals," Dr. Gottlieb said. "All too often, clinical teams' decisions simply support the teacher's judgment."

Indeed, overrepresentation of black and Hispanic children is the kind of issue that is so complex it can inspire 10 different kinds of conversations with 10 different experts.

And the solution? That's at least another 10 conversations.

The state's response to this issue was driven partly by a federal class action lawsuit settled in 2002. P. J. et al v. State of Connecticut, Board of Education, et al, brought by five children designated as mentally retarded and their families, compelled the state to closely monitor districts to see whether they were misdiagnosing illnesses in children or isolating mentally retarded children from their peers.

Bill Jordan, the father of Patrick Jordan (the P.J. in the suit), of West Hartford, said he thought the suit pushed the state to make changes, but added that overrepresentation is a problem "that's going to take a really long time to address."

Since the settlement, progress has been spotty, according to an advisory panel created by the settlement. The panel expressed skepticism about the state's commitment to the settlement's goals in its most recent report filed in September. It noted "uneven progress" in the state's most troubled districts and said the rest of the state was "moving too slowly in the desired direction."

State officials acknowledge that some districts have failed to make significant progress, but said the process of reforming the special education system has moved forward over the last few years. Completing the work is a long-term process.

"Some of it just takes time to turn that ship around," said George Dowaliby, the chief of the Bureau of Special Education at the state education department.

For the past four years, for instance, the state has held summits on racial disproportions in special education, inviting state and national experts to talk about methods of reducing the disproportions, Dr. Cappello said. About 30 districts send representatives to the summit, and the conference also includes teachers, legislators and family members of children in special education.

Districts that don't show improvements hear from the state. The education department tracks the number and type of special education placements throughout the state and red-flags districts where a statistical analysis indicates a problem. Those districts that appear to be placing too many minority children in special education classes are visited by monitors who examine the special education placement process for about a week. This year, the state is monitoring Bridgeport, Hartford, Stamford and New Britain.

Districts that continue to lag may be sanctioned, as is the case this year for Norwalk and Windham. Those two districts must spend 15 percent of the money they receive for special education services on early-intervention programs, such as literacy or behavioral-support programs.

Educators from problematic districts have another option, too. The state has begun holding a program for educators and administrators called Courageous Conversations on Race, in which participants discuss racial disparities in education.

Still, some think that the people most directly affected by this issue have not been invited into these discussions. Ms. Jackson, of African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities, said too few parents and teachers in urban districts realize that their children are overrepresented in special education. This summer, she held her own summit on minorities in special education.

"How are you making changes when the people on the front lines don't even know what's going on?" she asked. "We have to bring these things to the community level."


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