Special Education

Disparate Measures

By Lisa Fine — June 19, 2002 19 min read
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The statistics are clear: African-American students, especially boys, end up in special education more often than white students do. What is less clear is why.

When the principal summoned Domanic Randle’s grandmother to school for a meeting, the 10-year-old knew that usually meant the news was not good.

Other students teased him for being in special education, and Domanic never hesitated to fight back. There were stretches when his grandmother, who is raising him, got daily calls from the principal about the scuffles.

This time, when the call came in January, Domanic was especially nervous. School officials said it was time to discuss his future.

More than anything that day, Domanic wanted to shirk the twin stigmas of having a “speech and language impairment” and a “behavioral disorder,” the official labels that landed him in special education four years ago. For months, he had tried to prove himself. Since November, he had been part of a new program designed to identify and extricate students wrongly placed in special education. He’d done better on class tests and, according to his principal, was reading two grade levels above where he had started at the beginning of the school year. He always completed what he considered pretty easy homework. And the fisticuffs had ended. What could be wrong now?

Domanic sat tensely with his grandmother as the counselor said: “We’d like to try you in a regular class.”

For the rest of the meeting, he couldn’t stop grinning. “Thank you” was all that Domanic, a quiet child around most adults, could manage to say at the end.

His case is remarkable not only because, in this case, he was the only student in the Baltimore program this year to escape from special education. For students who are wrongly labeled, that is a consignment from which they rarely return. But Domanic is black, and he is male. And in American schools, those characteristics make him more likely to be pegged for special education.

Study after study has shown that black, male students are overrepresented in special education. While the distinction is slender overall—more than 14 percent of black students are in special education, compared with 12 percent of white students—the disparity is much greater among students classified as having mental retardation, or a learning disorder, or a behavioral or emotional disability.

After that January meeting, Domanic didn’t go directly to his West Baltimore home. He had news to spread—a name to clear.

“He ran around telling everybody he saw that he got out of special ed,” says his maternal grandmother, Queenatrice Wooden, laughing as she savors the memory. “He told everybody. Everybody.”

Domanic made a special point to stop and tell the kids who had teased him. “They would crack on me about my clothes,” he says now. “They would crack on me about my easy homework.”

His transformation has turned him into something of a celebrity at Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School here. He’s the boy who was “saved” from special education. Teachers point him out to each other, and the principal stops him in the hallway to chat.

“All of us saw something in this young man—that he was misplaced, and we needed to help him,” says Principal Russell Perkins. “I would see him in the halls and lay down the law that if he reverted back to his old ways, he would go back to his old class. But he is doing fine.”

Black students are three times more likely than white students to be labeled ‘mentally retarded.’

The disproportionate share of black students in special education is not new, but the focus on the issue has sharpened. Never before has there been such a momentum in education policymaking to try to understand the situation’s roots, and to address it.

Congress is considering the subject as it reauthorizes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the landmark federal law that in 1975 guaranteed students with disabilities the right to a “free, appropriate public education.” Last October, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing on the designation of minority children for special education.

The National Academy of Sciences, meanwhile, released a report in January of this year on the seeming overrepresentation of minorities in special education and underrepresentation of those students in gifted education. And the President’s Special Committee on Special Education is expected to address the issue when it releases recommendations this summer.

While Domanic Randle’s change of placement offers a measure of hope, the short and uneven history of the program that helped free him from what he regarded as a special education gulag points up the difficulty of addressing such racial disparities. The program, a joint project in six cities between school districts and the civic organization 100 Black Men of America, has suffered from lagging volunteerism and results that are disappointing or, at the least, subject to interpretation. The program is known as the Wimberly Projects, in honor of a deceased member of 100 Black Men.

It’s easy to see the discrepancy in the numbers. But in the often subjective world of special education, assigning causation for the preponderance of African-American boys in special education is much more difficult. And as 100 Black Men is finding, addressing the situation requires much more than good intentions.

Black students are three times more likely than white students to be labeled “mentally retarded.” Overall, black students are less likely than white students to leave special education and return to regular classrooms, according to a 2001 report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. But is racism—overt or covert, intentional or inadvertent—wholly to blame?

Researchers say socioeconomic factors contribute to a student’s increased likelihood of needing special education. A child in poverty has greater risks of having a low birth weight and of being exposed to lead paint and other environmental poisons, factors that could inhibit mental development. In addition, students who live in atypical family structures and come from poor neighborhoods may not be as well prepared for school, experts say. And the schools in their neighborhoods, often operating with fewer resources, may be ill prepared to help such students.

“For minority students, they bring risk factors to school,” says Christopher T. Cross, a co-author of the National Academy of Science report, called “Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education” and a senior fellow with the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. “Low-income children are exposed to more risk factors,” says Cross, who served as an assistant U.S. secretary of education for research during the first Bush administration. “That’s why you can’t just look at numbers and say there is discrimination. I’m sure there is some discrimination, but there is more to it.”

Is racism—overt or covert, intentional or inadvertent—wholly to blame?

The stakes are high for such students. The reversal of their academic fortune can mean the difference between self-sufficiency and dependence as adults, between continuing the cycle of poverty or breaking it. And the stakes for school districts, literally, are high as well. Special education is expensive.

Leaders of 100 Black Men, a 39-year-old organization based in Atlanta that has chapters throughout the United States, grew frustrated in the past decade over what they saw as an excess of discussion and absence of action on the problem. Two years ago, they decided to step in and take care of their own. If the schools weren’t able to look after African American boys, they would. The future of the black community depends on it, says Leroy Ervin, the director of educational programs for the group.

“It had to come from somewhere else. There were too many deep problems in school systems that were allowing the referrals to special education to happen,” Ervin says. “We decided that to fix the problem, you had to go to the smallest unit of education, the individual schools, and find the kids most at risk of being referred.”

The concept of the program was simple.

If African-American boys are being unfairly funneled into special education because of poor academic performance and inappropriate behavior, give them tutoring and provide black mentors to work on the social dimensions of the problem. The intention, Ervin says, was to match each child in the program with his own mentor. The program also encourages parents to participate more in their children’s education. The program got its start two years ago at Briarwood Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C.

The hope there was to catch children in danger of being classified as in need of special education and avert the diagnosis. The group that first year reported what on first blush seem to be staggering results: In 2000-01, out of 24 black, male students identified as potentially needing special education, only three by the end of the year were referred to special education. The second year, just now ending, looks even better: Of 27 students identified as at risk of ending up in special education, none is designated as such.

But how does one tell if those 24 students the first year and 27 this year really would have ended up in special education at all? Determining that is less clear-cut than the situation here in Baltimore, initiated a year later, where the intent was to take students already shunted into special education and get them out. Viewed from the opposite perspective, one could conclude that the Charlotte program took 51 children who weren’t in special education and now, two years later, three of them are.

Officials of 100 Black Men acknowledge that the Charlotte numbers are hardly scientific. How do they tell who is genuinely on the threshold of the special education wing, a subjective judgment? The elementary school itself came up with four risk factors: whether the student came from an atypical family structure, had a problem with absences from school, exhibited behavioral problems, and had academic difficulties. A student with at least two of the four risk factors was considered ripe for the intervention.

Once the roster was set at Briarwood Elementary—parents could opt not to put their children in the program—the after-school tutoring began. Teachers, meanwhile, received diversity-awareness and cultural-sensitivity training, including learning tactics to keep minor classroom interruptions or incidents from blowing up into a big scene. And students began to take field trips and attend social events— cookouts, holiday parties, and the like—with their mentors. At least, that was what was supposed to happen.

‘Schools are referral-happy. The referral of a student to special education is not always the answer.’

The tutors, most of them Briarwood teachers, could be counted on to be there after school. After all, they worked in the building. The volunteers—parents and mentors—were harder to round up.

The group invited parents of male students considered at risk to seminars on how to be involved in their children’s education. But when virtually no parents showed up for the seminars, the operators of the program had to come up with an incentive for busy parents, some of whom work two jobs, to attend optional school events. So they acknowledged a basic fact about humanity: If you give away free stuff, people will show up. They approached Wal-Mart to donate door prizes they could offer to the parents, says Rudy Jackson, the director of the Charlotte program for 100 Black Men of Charlotte. That seemed to help.

Finding and retaining mentors turned out to be even harder. When Ervin and others first conceived the program, they imagined mentors would be paired with students one-on-one. By the second year in Charlotte, it was more like a one-on- 27 relationship. At the beginning of the second year, about 12 mentors from 100 Black Men’s University of North Carolina chapter showed up. But by year’s end, only one mentor appeared consistently. Even the first year had fallen short of the conception. The 24 children that year worked with about eight mentors.

The lone mentor this year was LaVaughn Williams, a 23-year-old senior biology major at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

So, why did he hang in there, when others apparently decided that their routines did not include the time needed for the program? Williams says he sees himself in these boys.

“When I was in elementary school, they tried to put me in a slow class, but my mom wouldn’t let them,” he says. “I thought my experience might help somebody else. My mom was my mentor. I could do that for these kids. It is a shame the other guys couldn’t show up more often. I know they wanted to. They were just too busy.”

Williams says being a black college student, he could be a good role model for the youngsters.

“It’s kind of a problem how African- Americans view success,” Williams says. “We see athletes as successful. It’s good for the kids to see bankers or members of Congress or other avenues they could go down. It’s the way they perceive what is cool that needs to change. The media shows rappers, athletes, and actors as having all of the money.”

Just how effective Williams can be with 27 students to serve as a role model, much less a mentor, is hard to evaluate. Ervin, in 100 Black Men’s Atlanta office, says he regrets the Charlotte program did not have more success in attracting mentors. The members of the group’s chapter in Charlotte already volunteer for a middle school mentoring program, he says, and were stretched thin.

Finding steady leadership for the program has been a problem, too. The director of the Charlotte program, James Ramsey, a former mayor of Montclair, N.J., and a civil rights advocate, was the moving force behind the start-up in Charlotte. He had so much pull in the community, he could round up friends to visit the school at any time.

But when he died of renal cancer last October, early in the program’s second year, it left a void of leadership and cohesion, school officials say.

Jackson, a professor at nearby Davidson College, stepped in. But now his continued participation is in question. Jackson will take a sabbatical from his North Carolina job next academic year and move to Virginia, where he plans to write a book. On mentoring.

‘Mentors can't be there in all aspects of the student's life: at home, in the classroom with them. You really need powerful interventions to help these students.’

Even so, Jackson says he will continue to run the program long-distance.

Briarwood Elementary School has also had its share of leadership changes as well, with three principals in the two years of the program’s operation. The first principal got a better job in another city, the second was temporary. The third, Olivia Givens, who took over in July of last year, says she is committed to staying at the school and supporting the program.

When the promising results were released the first year from Charlotte, leaders of the program gave speeches at conferences saying they hoped Charlotte would serve as a model for the nation. But the data are hard to sell, even to some of those participating in the program.

“If you are talking about scientifically rigorous programs, this is not it,” says Briarwood’s guidance counselor, Larry Huber, who handles referrals to special education. “It’s just not going to hold up under scrutiny.”

But Huber acknowledges the problem, and the need for something to address it. The school’s population, which is 83 percent African-American, doesn’t reflect a typical population sample to examine overrepresentation in special education. But at the school, almost 18 percent of black male students are in special education, compared with the national average of 14 percent of black males in special education.

“If you are looking for the intent of the program working, you can feel it here,” Huber says. “Schools are referral- happy. This program made us look at other avenues than referrals. The referral of a student to special education is not always the answer.”

Huber says he noticed that teachers take drastically different approaches to discipline problems. One teacher might think a student needs special education for a behavioral problem, but the next might never even send the student to the principal, he says. Such differences prove the subjective nature of slapping labels on problem students and designating them with nonmedical disabilities like behavioral disorders, he argues.

“Maybe it’s just a difference in culture,” Huber says. “But I do see it happen.”

In some cases, schools needed cultural ambassadors because some teachers were misinterpreting behavior of African-American boys, Ervin says.

For example, teachers misunderstood a common pastime among black boys at the school, a “chops busting” exercise in which they cut each other down with verbal jousts.

“People will look at behavior and assess it within their own cultural context,” Ervin says. “You’d think these guys are going to be fighting any second, hurling insults like that. But it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a game.”

Despite the first-year travails, 100 Black Men this school year expanded the program to Baltimore and four other cities: Las Vegas; San Antonio; Memphis, Tenn.; and Jacksonville, Fla. Officials with the organization do not yet have results to report from the other four cities.

National experts say that while the program, even if fully peopled with mentors, may not be the universal answer to the problem, they nonetheless applaud its effort.

“Anything you can do is likely to be of some help,” says Suzanne Donovan, the principal researcher for the National Academy of Science report on the issue. “It works much better if school and home and community are brought together to work with the kids. A group like [100 Black Men] can serve the role of introducing the community support. The mentoring program idea can be used to give the one-on-one relationship to a child to improve their behavior.

“But without people being consistently there, it’s a problem,” she continues. “But the mentors can’t be there in all aspects of the student’s life: at home, in the classroom with them. You really need powerful interventions to help these students.”

Special education, policy experts say, has also become something of a dumping ground for students whose problems simply leave their teachers stymied.

Advocates say they will fight to fund more research on the subject when Congress rewrites the IDEA. Those advocates note, for example, that there has never been a long-range study that followed minority students placed in special education. They also will ask for more coordination of services provided by social services, health, and education agencies to help schools in addressing problems of students who may not need special education.

The IDEA mandate of special education services in schools was a triumph for students with disabilities. But special education, some educators and policy experts say, has also become something of a dumping ground for students whose problems simply leave their teachers stymied.

Here in Baltimore, the program at Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School began last November with 20 special education students, all of them black and only a few of them girls. As in Charlotte, how an observer sees the results is a matter of interpretation.

Only one student got out of special education: Domanic Randle. Among those who retained the designation: his brother Terrell. His other brothers, Jerrell, Michael, and Antoine, are in special education at other schools.

Organizers prefer to see that cup as 5 percent full, not 95 percent empty. They say they are not discouraged. They note that referrals to the principal’s office have dropped off dramatically, and that some students have shown marked improvement in their reading levels. And they look at little Domanic, a child who came to education with two strikes against him and no bat in his hand, and see a vision of what the program could accomplish.

When he first began school, Domanic struggled with reading. His grandmother has been raising Domanic and his four brothers for the past three years. Wooden says her daughter—who could not be reached for this story—was caught up in her own troubles when Domanic’s school career was just beginning and was relieved when school officials decided her second son had a disability. More help.

“Somehow, when he started school, he got put in special education, and they just left him there,” Wooden says. “When I got him, I could see the work was too easy for him.”

When the program from 100 Black Men was offered to Domanic, Wooden accepted.

Three days a week, volunteers from the group spent time after school with the participating students, who are in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades. The adults would show up in their suits from work or, for those few who were retired, dress up to set a good example. And the mentors here, aside from showing up in greater numbers than in Charlotte, took the job to heart.

A case in point: Four of the mentors visited Principal Perkins one day last month to discuss the program, walking in on him as he talked to a student about his behavior problems. The four men chimed in one after the other, telling the student to have enough respect for himself to not act up in class. Have pride, they told him, and behave with dignity, and others will respect you, too. The student hung his head as they talked to him, as if being scolded by a parent.

Mentors taught Domanic to play chess to help him with patience, planning ahead, and thinking through the consequences of his moves in school.

For the students, it was like suddenly having four or five fathers or grandfathers, where in their daily lives, they might have had no male role models before the program, the principal says.

The power of the relationships can be seen in the subtlest interactions. On a recent field trip to a museum to see an exhibit on the Underground Railroad, Domanic was tipping back in his chair—teetering on the back two legs to amuse himself and the kids sitting around him during a lecture from the curator. All it took was a raised eyebrow from mentor Mel Bates, 57, who owns a picture-framing business, to get him to stop.

Getting out of special education has given Domanic much more confidence, Wooden says.

Having mentors at the school means having people he can turn to, she says.

“Now, there’s somebody he don’t have to fight,” she says

It has helped Domanic to have friends who wear ties and hang out with the principal because students try to get Domanic in trouble, his grandmother says. Since he got out of special education, she says, they want to knock him down because of his success.

“The kids pull the fire alarm and say Domanic did it,” Wooden says. “But the difference is now the principal knows him. They will believe him if he says he didn’t do it.”

It’s hard for his friends and neighbors to believe that the boy who always got into trouble now likes chess and wants to be a police officer, Wooden says. Now he comes directly home from school, sits down at the table, and doesn’t get up until all of his homework is done.

He has become a sort of mentor himself to his younger twin brothers, Terrell and Jerrell. He helps his brothers prepare for tests. Terrell goes to school at Lockerman-Bundy and is in a 3rd grade special education class for behavioral problems. He was in the program alongside Domanic. By the end of the school year, Terrell was still in special education.

But the boys’ grandmother is convinced Domanic’s example will be a good inspiration.

“He looks up to his brother,” Wooden says of Terrell. “I think he sees you can do anything if you work hard.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Disparate Measures


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