Citing concerns that Hispanic and black children are overrepresented in special education in the New York City schools, the U.S. Department of Education and the city’s school board have agreed to investigate and remedy any problems.
Under the May 30 agreement, the nation’s largest school system will seek to reduce the number of minority students referred for special education services. The plan highlights longstanding fears that minority students are mistakenly labeled as disabled because school officials misread cultural differences.
While the Education Department’s office for civil rights does not directly accuse the school system of mislabeling minority students, data from a university study show that Hispanic and black children in the city have been referred to special education at disproportionate rates. Asian-Americans were less likely to receive special referrals than white students, according to the 1995 report by a group of New York University researchers charged with finding ways to improve the special education system .
Of the 993,000 students in the New York City public schools, about 120,000 receive special education services. The NYU study found that, in elementary and middle schools, 6.7 percent of black children and 5.8 percent of Hispanic children were receiving special education services in self-contained classes, compared with 3.7 percent of white children.
The independent panel called for shifting more students, services, and money into general education. (“Panel Urges More Spec.-Ed. Students, Money Go To Regular Classes,” Jan. 10, 1996.)
The OCR also cites concerns that minority special education students may not be receiving services in the least restrictive environment as required by federal law. “There are no findings in this” regard, said Helen N. Whitney, the director of the OCR’s New York field office. But “it is an issue that is of mutual concern to both parties,” she said.
Disabled students who need special education will still receive those services, she said, adding that the “memorandum of understanding” between her agency and the school system merely seeks to assure that students are placed in appropriate settings.
While the New York district is not the first school system to come under the microscope for overrepresentation of minority students in special education, it is the first school system of its magnitude to enter into a such an agreement with the Education Department.
Since 1994, more than 100 other districts have undergone OCR compliance reviews on the special education overrepresentation issue, OCR spokesman Rodger Murphey said. Such reviews are initiated by OCR rather than a complaint and often yield a federal-school agreement on correcting a violation of federal law. Usually, for about three years following an agreement, OCR will monitor a district’s progress. The other districts under review since 1994--most of which are considerably smaller than the New York City system--are still being monitored by OCR, Murphey said.
A spokeswoman for the New York school board said the compliance agreement went “hand in hand” with Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew’s own initiatives to reduce the number of students incorrectly identified as having disabilities. The chancellor received broader powers over the day-to-day operations of schools late last year. (“Crew Packs Arsenal of New Powers in N.Y.C.,” Jan. 15, 1997.)
“The chancellor has spent a great deal of energy working with the federal government on this area,” spokeswoman Chiara Coletti said.
The school board plans to complete a statistical analysis by next month of the number of minority students in special education, and each of the city’s 32 community school districts will be required to submit--as part of new “performance-based contracts"--details on its special education referrals and programs.
Under the agreement, the school system also must provide training for parents on their rights on special education law and on the procedures for receiving services. In addition, New York has agreed to measure disabled students’ academic success and to replicate and expand programs that have proved successful in raising academic achievement.
The federal civil rights office will monitor the school system’s efforts for three years, and will then reopen the case if OCR officials are not satisfied with the district’s progress, Ms. Whitney said.
Ms. Coletti said the time frame is “a tough challenge, but one we’ll make every effort to address.”