Another Jim Crow: The special education pipeline for black children

For decades, African American children, especially black boys, are an overrepresented population in the special education system.

Today, there are approximately six million special needs children receiving special education services.

Out of that, African American children are 1.4 times more likely to receive special education services when compared to their white peers; and black and Latino males make up almost 80 percent of youth in special education programs, according to a study by the National Education Association.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

Black students are also more likely to be placed in highly restrictive environments, which remove them from traditional classrooms. Studies note, that the more time that a child learns in restrictive environments, the less opportunity they have to access intellectual rigor in traditional academic settings.

Another issue with highly restrictive environments is that it decreases students’ engagement with peers. Added, classrooms excluding students from traditional settings create social and systemic stigmas often difficult to erase.

In a paper and study commissioned by the Association of Black Psychologists, Jamila Codrington and Halford H. Fairchild contend that special education merely replaced segregated school laws. While this occurs throughout the U.S., it is a glaring issue in southern states.

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The New Jim Crow in Education

Black children are overrepresented in special education programs.

In the south, the numbers of black students in special education are dismally disproportionate. Black students receive special education services, such as 40% in Alabama; 39.4% in Georgia; 50% in Louisiana; 52.4% in Mississippi; 43% in South Carolina; and 45.2% in Maryland. The percentage becomes more disturbing when they only makeup 16 percent of the student population.

In addition to the overall enrollment of black students with special needs, recent federal data shows that only 62 percent of black special needs children graduate from high school with a traditional diploma, compared to 76 percent of white students in special education.

In some states, the racial gap is wider. Such as Nevada where only 17 percent of black students with special needs graduated with a regular diploma. As a result, many black special needs students are either being categorized with a certificate diploma (very limited options for advancement after high school) or as a drop out.

As the number of special education students in the United States continue to rise, black special needs students continue to be disproportionately represented in the special education system. This is worse for black boys. Even though black boys make up 9 percent of the U.S. population, they already account for 20 percent of special needs children.

Unfortunately, this is no surprise as the public school system often shows opposition towards black boys and immediately label them as a problem or threat, as they are removed from the classroom. Removal from the classroom often leads to a road towards the prison system.

Black Boys

The previous data continues to show that black children are still perceived as academically inferior and black boys are labeled as defiant, destructive and hyperactive. Codrington and Fairchild say that perceived behavior issues often lead to black children; especially black boys to fall under categories of special needs.

When you have studies contending that minorities are disproportionately underrepresented in special education, this further helps to push the agenda of categorizing and labeling black children as inferior regardless of any socioeconomic challenges.

Black parents who are thrust into the special education system are unaware of their parental rights and often will give consent for evaluations and placement options without understanding the long-term consequences. When school districts force decisions and some black parents push back, they are unable to afford the necessary advocates and/or attorneys to fight on their behalf.

It is easy to blame the perceived lack of involvement of black parents, the social and cultural differences and/or socioeconomic factors for the overrepresentation of black children in special education. However, many black parents wholeheartedly trust the judgment of the school district, but only to later find out that their child is being led down an uncertain path.

Nicole Bovell, M.S. is a veteran special education teacher and researcher.

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