Thursday, September 24, 2020


Article Index

E. Overrepresentation in Special Education Classes

Far too many African-American males are assigned to special education classes and graduate with special education diplomas. It was never the intention of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown that African-American students, especially African-American males, would be segregated by race in schools and further segregated by race plus gender in special education classes. The segregation of African-American*27 males into special education classes and tracking programs negatively impacts their self-esteem, progress in school, and ultimately their rates of dropout and graduation. The disproportionate placement of African-American males in special education programs further subordinates their status in public schools. Moreover, the disproportionate assignment of African-American males in special education classes further perpetuates stereotypical biases that African-American male students who have behavioral issues are automatically labeled as being mentally challenged and academically deficient.

Numerous studies and reports by leading researchers have determined that minority students are overrepresented in special education school programs. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, which is the agency that investigates discrimination in school systems receiving federal funds, has determined that school systems disproportionately assign African-American students to special education curriculum. For example, in some states, 25% of African-American males are in special education programs. Even more disturbing is that in some school districts, African-American*28 males represent more than 40% of students placed in special education programs. African-American students comprise 20% of the population of students receiving special education services.

There are numerous reasons for the disproportionate number of minorities placed in special education, such factors include the misidentified and misuse of tests, the failure of the general education system, and insufficient resources. There are also concerns that teachers may place African-American male students in special education programs as a disciplinary action. Assigning African-American males to special education classes may also discourage them from completing school. For example, New York City Schools reported that for the 2001-2002 school year 61% of New York City's special education students of graduation age had dropped out of school.

In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) to ensure that students with disabilities would have free appropriate public school education which emphasizes social education and related services designed to meet their unique needs. Prior to the passage of the IDEA, many school districts failed to provide disabled individuals with an adequate public education, if any at all. For example, in Mills v. Board of Education, six of the seven minority plaintiffs were African-American male students who challenged the school board's practice of excluding them and other disabled students from adequate public schools and facilities. The court held in Mills *29 that disabled children have a constitutional right to a free and appropriate education.

Unfortunately, the IDEA has been at times a double-edged sword. In other words it has been overly used to label and disproportionately place African-American males in special education programs and out of mainstream educational instruction. At the same time, African-American males with mental disabilities have been suspended and expelled from school in lieu of receiving services required by the IDEA. Even though it was quite obvious to educators and researchers that minorities were disproportionately placed in special education programs, the federal government did not respond in any meaningful manner until 1997, when they passed the amendments to IDEA. The amendments state that [g]reater efforts are needed to prevent the intensification of problems connected with mislabeling and high dropout rates among minority children with disabilities. Notwithstanding the amendment, minorities, particularly African-American males, are still often mislabeled and disproportionately drop out of school.

Standardized intelligence tests, otherwise known as IQ tests, are used to determine the placement of students in special education classes. The use of IQ tests was challenged in Larry P. v. Riles. In Riles, African-American elementary school children challenged the use of the State of California's IQ test, which resulted in a disproportionate number of African-American students placed in special education classes. The District Court held that the State had used tests which were racially and culturally biased, and had a discriminatory impact against black children in violation of Title VI of the Civil *30 Rights Act of 1964, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. The Court expressed concern with permanently placing African-American students into educationally dead-end isolated, and stigmatizing classes. . . . More than twenty-years later, African-American students, especially African-American males, are disproportionately placed in such classes.

Similarly, in Parents in Action on Special Education v. Hannon, African-American parents challenged the use of standardized intelligence tests administered by the Chicago Board of Education as being culturally biased toward African-American students. The parents presented evidence that African-American students were disproportionately placed in the educable mentally handicapped classes. As a result of the test, 80% of the students in the educable mentally handicapped classes were African-American students. Even though the Judge recognized that there were a few questions on the intelligence tests that were culturally biased against black children, or at least sufficiently suspect, nevertheless, the court held that these few questions would not invalidate the test. Unfortunately, a negative impact of the Brown decision was that African-American students, especially African-American males who were assigned to desegregated schools, were disproportionately labeled with having a mental disability and dumped into special education classes. Ostensibly, they were assigned to such classes to receive specialized educational assistance, in reality they were warehoused and passed on through the system. Similarly, African-American males who attend *31 segregated schools are warehoused and segregated in special education classes.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law