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Misrepresentation of Black Students in Special Education

I'm a white woman. I'll start there and you can decide if you want to keep reading.


I'm a white woman who grew up in a middle class neighborhood in Santa Clarita, CA, around very few Black families. But I was brought up by parents who, as my dad says, "never uttered a prejudiced word." My parents are non-practicing Jewish Buddhists, or JewBu, if you will. I was raised in a household where chanting occurred regularly, and my parents hosted "meetings" for their Buddhist religion where every class and creed of person was welcome. And my dad was/is a small but mighty man who clawed his way, tooth and nail, through the music industry and was one of the few who made a successful living at one of the most cutthroat occupations known to man. After 50 years in the industry, after dealing with some of the most manipulative, selfish, and slimy people possible, my dad has three men he calls true friends. These men are loyal, trustworthy, authentic, honest, creative, inspired, successful, intelligent, unique, and....Black.


I was brought up in a white household but I was taught not to judge based on the color of one's skin. I was just taught not to judge, period. People were people were people. I was also raised as an inspired youngster, who was encouraged and supported in my passion, which at that time, was dance. And I was naturally a good student and knew I was going to college from the time I was five-years-old (and I never questioned that I could...and didn't know that that was a privilege not every kid had). Additionally, I was raised to be authentic, and was not afraid to say my piece and speak my mind, even if what I had to say was not always popular and maybe even ruffled some feathers. I still remember getting sent out of dance class for correcting my teacher because she wasn't counting, "5, 6, 7, 8," on the correct counts in the music. Fast forward to today.


I've been working in public schools in special education for 14 years. I'm also an educational psychologist in private practice where I strive to identify learning differences in children and teens, and provide families with a knowledge-base to understand the struggles of their learner and what they can do to support moving forward so they grow and thrive. I also do consulting work with parents, helping them navigate the special education system, which people really don't know anything about...until they have their own struggling student.


Racial injustice is real, and at the forefront of everyone's minds right now. I have to admit that for a week or so, after the killing of George Floyd, I was at a loss for what to do, how to move forward, how to continue to work within a system that I am wholeheartedly committed to, and that is also riddled with systemic racism. So I remained silent and observed and listened and waited and watched. But to be silent is to be complicit...


An old friend of mine (who is Black), who I have known for 10+ years, but who I had lost touch with, with the exception of social media, began posting videos of herself on the subject of racism in education. JoAnna is inspired, powerful, strong, authentic, and an educator herself. She inspired me, and I reached out to her to start a real conversation, about the state of our nation, the Black community, and education. Sitting with my friend and listening to each other with compassion, was the beginning of something beautiful. Because let's face it....white people ARE afraid to say....anything and everything. And the only way we can really move forward is to talk and listen, not just on social media, but in person, with the person next to you. But there has got to be trust and openness on both sides, and that is still hard to come by.

JoAnna and I decided we could begin having discussions together on various topics to help support the Black community, especially pertaining to education and special education. Black and white, open, honest, compassionate, and real. That is how I can start to help move the needle and support an oppressed community of people who I value and respect. Stay tuned for our first live conversation...


Our first topic will cover the misrepresentation of Black students in special education and my preparation for our upcoming talk inspired this piece. The data is astounding and speaks volumes. There are arguments on both sides of this coin. Black students are historically overrepresented in special education for falling outside of the norm. There is even a court case that has been upheld since 1979 (Larry P. vs Riles) that does not allow IQ tests to be given to Black students in public education because they were deemed discriminatory, and Black students were being disproportionally put in classes for the "educable mentally retarded." But in my professional opinion, just as staggering is the underrepresentation of Black students who need special education services but are overlooked, as school districts are still trying to overcome the disproportionality issue.


I have personal issue with funds being spent to monitor the data, because I know from experience that money would be better spent on parent education, teacher education, and better school staffing, especially in districts that have been systemically under-supported, like in impoverished communities. If ALL students were getting the amount of care, attention, and quality teaching they need to learn effectively, parents were informed and collaborative partners, and struggling students were identified early and supported as they needed by specialists BEFORE they were tested and put in special education, I believe we would see a much different scenario. This is a huge topic to tackle. Where I want to focus is on parent education of what special education is for, what happens once a child qualifies for special education, and what parents can do preventatively to either keep their Black student from being put in special education or making sure that if they need it, they get it.


What is special education for and not for?

Special education is federal funding for students with disabilities and there are 13 qualifying categories. Some of them are medical conditions and others include significant cognitive deficiency, learning disabilities, attention problems, speech problems and emotional problems. Special education is NOT for students who, for example, have behavior or attention issues, or haven't learned how to read, because of poor teaching practices. They are also not for students who are falling just a little bit behind. There is even a clause in the criteria for "specific learning disability" that states that the cause of disability cannot be due to "environmental or economic disadvantage" or "limited school experience or poor attendance." (Although I will tell you that not once in my career have I ever said that a student was not eligible because he was environmentally or economically disadvantaged).

Special education provides extra services to students who qualify because they have a significant need (service = specialist). The services are intended to support the disability and improve the student’s ability to learn, and ultimately not need special education services. It is supposed to “close the achievement gap” by providing help where needed but despite the best efforts of special educators, statistics show this is, unfortunately, unlikely. If a student is found “eligible” for services, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is developed, which is a legal document that changes and evolves year to year. Services include specialized support in areas including but not limited to academics, communication, behavior, attention, mental health, physical, and self-help needs. The goal of special education is to get out of special education. But ironically, typically the more services a student needs and the farther away they are from the general education class and curriculum, the less likely that becomes.


Many people think that special education is a magic wand, and it is NOT. Special educators, I continue to believe, have students' best interests at heart and entered the profession to make a difference. We are all doing the best we can within a flawed but well-meaning system. But inundated with students with multiple needs, large caseloads, and mountains of paperwork, there is only so much time in a day. I want to clearly say that special education services are integral and critical for many students with disabilities and this is why I continue to work tirelessly in the system. But I also want to clearly state that I encourage you to do whatever you can on the preventative end to support your student, and if your child is struggling, get educated about the intricacies of the system so that you can be an informed participant in the process. If your child needs services, seek them. Advocate and obtain them. But if he doesn't, they are likely not in his best interest.


Here are some interesting (ahem...appalling) statistics:

IN 2018/2019, BLACKS WERE SECOND HIGHEST POPULATION NATION-WIDE IN SPECIAL EDUCATION AT 16%, SECOND ONLY TO AMERICAN INDIAN/ALASKA NATIVE. 14% IS THE NATIONAL AVERAGE (The Condition of Education, NCES). (It is unknown if these are students who actually needed special education or if they were put in for other reasons like behavior issues stemming from poor teaching, etc).


IN 2017/2018, BLACK STUDENTS IN SPECIAL EDUCATION HAD THE LOWEST PERCENTAGE OF GRADUATION RATE WITH A HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA (66%) (National Center for Education Statistics).


In the same year, 2017/2018, 86,000 Black students exited special education, for a variety of reasons. 56,000 got a diploma, so about 65%, versus 76% of white special education students who graduated with a diploma. 20% of Black special education students dropped out versus 13% of white special education students dropped out. 17% of white students transferred back to general education versus 9% of Black students transferred back to general education.


The bottom line is, once you are in, you are unlikely to get out. You want in if you need it, and you want to stay out if you don’t.


Tangent...

Let’s touch briefly on one of the system’s BIG problems. Basically, the funding for schools is based on where you live. Impoverished communities have low funding for schools. But these communities could benefit from the most support and best teachers since their children face so many risk factors. But that isn’t how it works. In my career as a school psychologist and in special education, I have always wanted to help kids. Period. But for my own quality of life, living in the Bay Area, I NEED TO GET PAID. I did my internship in 2006 at Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto, CA. This district has a high population of Black students (highest in the area). I spent 2013-2018 in Menlo Park City School District, right next door to EPA, where the median home value was $6,000,000. Highest in the country.


In 2019/2020, a school psychologist in Ravenswood’s salary started at $65,000 and the highest pay was 96,000.


In 2019/2020, a school psychologist in Menlo Park’s salary started at $97,000 and the highest pay was $150,000.


Given the choice, where would you choose to work???

What can you do preventatively to make sure your child is learning and stays out of special education if he or she does NOT need it, or gets it if he or she DOES need it?


  1. READ with your child. Reading is the key to everything and if your student can't read, for whatever reason (like poor teaching), he/she is more likely to be referred for special education.

  2. Build a relationship with your child’s teacher and let it be known that you care about your child’s progress and are available for communication.

  3. Advocate for your child when needed.

  4. Go to Back-to-School Night.

  5. Volunteer to be a Room Parent and/or volunteer in the class.

  6. Provide your child with opportunities to learn in the community and natural environment (outside, at home, at the store, on trips). Learning can take place anywhere and everywhere.

  7. Show interest in and support your child’s creativity, athleticism, musicality, or anywhere else where they thrive.

  8. Teach your child about having a “growth mindset” and that there are no barriers to who he or she can become or what he/she can do in life.

  9. Teach your child about classroom/school expectations and let your child know you will support his or her teacher.

  10. Learn about different disabilities and the signs and symptoms so if you see them early, you can advocate for more support with your pediatrician, at school, or through community resources.


Racism exists. The system is broken. If we are going to make a change, especially for children, we have to be a team. White people are afraid….afraid to say the wrong thing, to say something offensive, to say something racist. So, we have been, and may continue to stay silent, even in light of current events. This is uncomfortable. The only reason I feel safe enough to write this and send this message now is because I am collaborating with my Black friend and colleague, who I trust will do her part in trying to understand me and forgive me when I inadvertently make a mistake. This is not the Black person’s burden to bear. We need to break down the barriers on both sides to move forward. Remember that your child’s white teacher may be afraid to reach out to you, collaborate with you, and may have her own implicit biases that she doesn’t even know exist. This is not an excuse. But if you want your child to excel in school, we have to start with the relationship between parent and teacher, parent education, and early intervention and preventative care. We have to keep your child OUT of special education if she doesn’t need it, and access support, as early as possible, if she does.


Look out for my next blog post on signs and symptoms of different disabilities so parents know what to look for and ways to support. Please reach out to me at jana@jplep.com, visit my website at www.jplep.com, or follow me on Facebook at @janaparkerlep.


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