Equity & Diversity

Group Targets Racial Disparities In Special Education

By Lisa Goldstein — November 12, 2003 2 min read
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A group representing African-American children with learning disabilities has launched an effort to curb racial inequities in special education.

Empowering parents is one of the best ways to combat the persistent finding that black children are statistically more likely than white children to be designated as special education students, according to the National Association for the Education of African American Children with Learning Disabilities.

The Columbus, Ohio-based group recently offered a daylong training session to 12 parents from around the country at an event designed to draw attention to the issue of racial disparities in special education. Parents learned details of special education law and how to be advocates for their children at school.

“We are raising an army of parents throughout the country,” said Elsie Blount, the board president for the association. “We want to give parents the tools they can use to go back into their communities and become advocates and train other parents to become advocates.”

Helping other parent and educator organizations understand the problem is another part of the effort, Ms. Blount said.

At the Oct. 31 meeting in Washington, the parents met with representatives from more than 20 other national organizations, including the National Urban League, the National Alliance of Black School Educators, and the Children’s Defense Fund. Representatives from seven major learning-disabilities organizations also participated in the event.

“The idea was to bring together a coalition of people who are like-minded who understand there are issues,” Ms. Blount said. “African-American students are facing discrimination for both the color of their skin and for having learning disabilities. It’s more of a burden.”

“We hope it will be the beginning of a lot of new partnerships in helping us continue our work,” said Nancy Tidwell, the president of the advocacy group for black children with learning disabilities.

Attention to the issue of racial disparities in special education has been gathering steam in recent years.

In a hearing two years ago on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, members of Congress concentrated on the issue of such disparities in the identification of students for special education and for programs serving gifted and talented students.

High-Level Concern

The House version of the IDEA bill calls for districts with a disproportionately high number of minority students in special education to run “pre-referral” programs that would work to reduce the number.

A number of major research reports have been released on the topic in recent years as well. The National Research Council found in a 2002 study that more than 14 percent of black students across the country were in special education, compared with 13 percent of American Indians, 12 percent of whites, 11 percent of Hispanics, and 5 percent of Asian-Americans.

About 2.6 percent of black students nationally are identified as mentally retarded, compared with 1.2 percent of white students. About 1.5 percent of black students are labeled as emotionally disturbed, while 0.91 percent of whites are labeled that way, according to the NRC.

Ms. Blount said even though national attention has helped raise awareness about the subject of racial disparities in special education, many parents may still not feel equipped to take action.

“There’s never enough being done,” she said. “We are not saying we can solve every problem but we are doing what we can.”

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