Special Education and Minorities
New York Times
November 20, 2005
By AVI SALZMAN
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"Committees have not done a good job of refining teacher referrals," Dr.
Gottlieb said. "All too often, clinical teams' decisions simply support the
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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