Racing To The Top, But Leaving Students Of Color Behind In Special Ed

Children of color are reportedly over represented in special education classes in Minnesota and other states. For more on whether anything can be done about it, guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with Dan Losen of the The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the holidays are often a time for warm family get-togethers, but it can also be a very tough time to get through if you've lost a family member to suicide. We'll get some strategies on how to cope in just a few minutes.

But first, a recent editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune caught our attention. It had to do with a troubling trend in that state where children of color seem to be overrepresented in special education classes. And it turns out that trend is not specific to Minnesota. It's actually a cause for concern in many states. We wanted to learn more about why that is and whether anything can be done about it, so we've called on Daniel Losen. He's the director for the Center For Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Welcome back to the program.

DANIEL LOSEN: Thanks for having me on.

HEADLEE: The first issue when we talk about special ed is diagnosis. And I guess diagnosis may not be the right word to use because oftentimes it's not doctors deciding what kids - what kids end up in special ed. How do kids end up in special education classes?

LOSEN: Well, often it's a referral from a teacher, but it can also be a referral from a parent to be evaluated. And in that evaluation process, there's a series of tests that are conducted with the student. And then, a team comes together to make the decision whether the student is eligible for special education services.

HEADLEE: And kids that end up in a special ed program, there's certain things that follow after that. I mean, this is something that you've written about specifically before, but has been studied continuously - that, oftentimes, kids in special ed classes remain there for the rest of their school careers, and that's not always a positive thing. Explain what that means.

LOSEN: Right, well, one of the things that happens oftentimes, especially in certain disability categories such as emotional disturbance or intellectual disabilities, which used to be called mental retardation, students are much more likely to be removed from the mainstream where they may not have access to high-quality curriculum and instruction.

But also, the likelihood that they'll be suspended from school - well, first of all, educated in a restrictive setting - but then also suspended short-term for behavioral issues. And their risk of winding up in the juvenile justice system at the end of all of this is much, much greater. There are about 30 percent or more of students we know that had these individual education plans who wind up incarcerated. And that's much larger than their representation, which is, you know, between 12 and 15 percent of our enrollment.

HEADLEE: And because special education often includes such a wide variety of kids with varying problems, I have to imagine that's very difficult for teachers to handle somebody who's maybe a kid who's going through a traumatic time or maybe has been a victim of abuse at home as opposed to a kid who has a learning disability or dyslexia. I mean, that's an incredibly diverse range of needs.

LOSEN: It is very diverse, and especially with regard to kids who have experienced trauma. Oftentimes, those students aren't identified at all. So schools are often not well equipped to intervene early. And many kids who then go without any support or services when they've been traumatized, do wind up, you know, having a disability that is more lifelong. There's a lot that can be done, though, and a lot of where we're falling down is in the training and support of general education teachers as well as in the quality of special education services that are provided to students. And so that's the real concern underlying all this is that when our schools fail to provide kids with their needs, they wind up - we wind up paying as taxpayers - they wind up out of school, but in other places such as the juvenile justice system.

HEADLEE: Let's break down a little bit of what you just said. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the challenges of special education in America's schools. Our guest is Dan Losen of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. So you're talking about emotional trauma and how sometimes it's not diagnosed or noticed until it becomes a behavioral problem, and then they get put into special ed. But kids who get put into special ed because of emotional problems, sometimes - and let me give you an example.

A friend of mine who's a teacher, there was a kid - a girl whose mother was struggling with cancer, died of cancer. She had a very traumatic year, and she ended up being in the special education program because she became a behavioral problem. And she was there - that happened in fifth grade. She landed in special ed for the rest of her career in school and then dropped out of school eventually. How common is that kind of thing?

LOSEN: Well, it's incredibly common. For kids with disabilities across the board, they are much less likely to graduate on time and much more likely to drop out, especially students with emotional disturbance. They're also much, much more likely to be suspended. And then there's this huge racial dynamic that we really should mention because it's especially African-American students and African-American boys who are much likely to be suspended out of school. And this dramatically increases the likelihood that they will drop out or wind up incarcerated.

HEADLEE: Why do we - and some of the numbers - it varies from state to state, but some of the numbers are just staggering in terms of the percentage of - especially, as you say, young black boys who are put into special ed because of emotional disturbance. Why is that? Why are these kids overrepresented in special ed?

LOSEN: Well, there are many, many reasons. One reason that's often pointed to, and it's not specific to emotional disturbance, but is that where in the general education setting, if teachers are not prepared to work with diverse learners and aren't getting the supports and services that they need to work effectively with students, there's a tendency to over identify kids in the category, such as emotional disturbance or intellectual disability, where they're more likely to wind up out of their classroom. Of course, with mainstreaming, about 60 percent of all kids with disabilities wind up - are still in the general education setting, you know, four out of - four-fifths of the time.

However, in those categories, intellectual disability and emotional disturbance and some others, they're much more likely to be removed from the mainstream. And there, the problem is also that the kinds of inadequacies we see in general ed are just replicated in special ed. So if there are teachers that need support and training in the general education classroom and that's contributing to this over identification, oftentimes, in the special education classroom, we'll see the same lack of training, certification, lack of support and services, even for the special ed teachers. So instead of becoming a place where kids get the services they need, it just replicates the patterns. And they are very likely to be suspended or removed from their special ed classroom and wind up unsupervised for short periods of time.

HEADLEE: And this is a terrible question. I feel terrible even asking it. But do sometimes kids who are not performing on tests the way that they should, do they end up getting sorted out of the general population so it doesn't count against a school's test scores?

LOSEN: Well, there's a real concern, especially with the new pressure to evaluate teachers on one-years' worth of academic gain or growth of their students, that if you have students with disabilities, there's more time and energy that's often required to be successful of those students. And that is those students' right to be in the mainstream classroom, to have access to the full curriculum. However, there is that concern that there will be a tendency to push those students out, either through suspension or through identifying them as having the kind of disability where they would be removed from the classroom.

Now usually, accountability requires that students with disabilities are included in that calculus. But oftentimes, it might not reflect on the classroom teacher or if they're sent to a separate school or an alternative school, it might not count against the school that identified them to be removed to the alternative. So there are concerns with the way accountability may add these kinds of inappropriate incentives to remove students from the mainstream.

HEADLEE: So if I'm a parent and, especially a parent of a Latino kid, an African-American kid, and my school has identified my child as needing special ed classes and I disagree with that, what do I do?

LOSEN: Right. So it's very complicated because, of course, special education, when done well, is something that you would really want for your child if you agreed with that diagnosis. But there are a number of things that you can do because parents have rights. You don't have to accept the evaluation of - and conclusion of the team. So you can get a second opinion by having a separate set of tests conducted. You can also challenge the placement.

And it's very important, as well, to every year, to press for the best quality of supports and services for your child. So oftentimes what happens is, a student gets an Individualized Education Plan. It may not be carried out the way it needs to be or maybe the student, if they have some sort of emotional issues, is not getting the counseling services or other supports in the mainstream classroom that that student needs to be successful. And so rather than just blame the student and kick the student out, I think parents really have to use the rights they have under the IDEA and under Section 504 to push back to make sure that the school district is providing that student, their student, with the full quality - you know, the high quality of supports and services that their student needs to be successful.

HEADLEE: But, you know, Daniel, we only have about a minute left, but I had to have that kind of attention in my kids' schooling. But I imagine other people who don't, who are maybe working a couple jobs don't have that kind of time, can't visit the school, can't go through all those meetings, that must be very difficult.

LOSEN: I think it's not only difficult, oftentimes, parents are not able to avail themselves of these protections. And the government, the federal government actually has an obligation to monitor what states are doing. And states should be monitoring districts for disproportionality in not just identification, but in placement, in settings that are too restrictive, but also in the discipline of students. And they're supposed to look at this not just by disability, but also by race with disability. Unfortunately, that is not being enforced to the degree that it should be.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

LOSEN: And in fact, in Minnesota and in Minneapolis, that is an example of where things have gone awry. And there has not been enough federal enforcement of these requirements that every state look at districts and look for disproportionality. And when there is a problem, they're supposed to provide...

HEADLEE: Take action.

LOSEN: ...Early intervening services.

HEADLEE: Yeah. Daniel Losen, director for the Center of Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. He joined us from member station WGBH in Boston, Massachusetts. Daniel, thank you so much.

LOSEN: Thanks for having me on.

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