Overrepresentation of African American males in special education is an old, yet unchanging issue. Year in and year out, a disproportionate number of Black male students are enrolled in special education courses for various reason, but mostly behavioral issues and learning disabilities.
Within the Antelope Valley Union High School District, African Americans make up 21 percent of the total student population, yet is the second largest group enrolled in special education, according to the California Department of Education.
Among the total number of special education students classified as having an emotional disturbance, 44 percent of them are African American. Among the total number of special education students described as having a “specific learning disability” 46 percent are Black. However, within the County of Los Angeles in the same areas of classifications, African Americans represent about 28 percent and 14 percent respectively.
A 1998 study of placement of African Americans in Special Education concluded that schools enroll disproportionate numbers of Black males (specifically) in special education.
“Disparities in representation of White and African American males in special education were studied in 10 cities, and the racial composition of the teaching staff was also studied,” the report reads. “A relationship was found between the number of Black male students placed in special education and the number of White teachers in the school system. The cities with the highest percentage of White teachers had the highest percentage of Black students identified as ‘special.’”
Within Antelope Valley Union High School District, 71 percent of the total teachers are White, but the student body is 9 percent African American. In the 2008-09 academic school year, 70.1 percent of L.A. County’s teacher population was White, and only 4.3 percent of teachers were Black. Almost 10 percent of the student population was Black in the same year and only 15.1 percent was White.
So what is the cause of this phenomenon? One report indicates that due to the disproportionate amount of White female teachers instructing African Americans, a repetition of this type of classification persists.
A similar study entitled “Overrepresentation of African American Males in Special Education Programs” conducted by Carla Adkison-Bradley, Phillip D. Johnson, Glinda Rawls, and Darryl Plunkett at Western Michigan University, implies that a negative projection of African American males may contribute to the issue.
“Johnson (2006) contended that how we think about African American men affects the way we respond to them. He further explained that much of the discourse in the psychological and educational literature that pertains to African American young men has tended to portray them as unintelligent, drug addicted, violent sexual predators who are incarcerated and unemployed,” the study says. “As result, when African American men or male youth are described in a pejorative manner, it becomes easier for society in general, and teachers in particular, to deny their intentional, creative and intellectual qualities, all qualities associated with being a “good student.”
It is important to note that research has shown that many teachers make their special education referral decisions primarily on the extent to which they believe a child is “teachable” or non-threatening.”
The study further points out that the types of tests that are used to qualify students for special education are culturally based (not necessarily African American related) and generally reflect the “knowledge base of its creator(s).”
The researchers also concede that placement of students in special education increases their risk of dropping out of high school, limits employment opportunities, and puts them at risk of becoming incarcerated.
“Communication codes among African American Children and Youth – the Fast Track from Special Education to Prison?” by Gary H. Sherwin and Stacy Schmidt pulls together the alarming numbers of violent crimes and arrests among young African Americans and the disproportionate numbers of Black males in special education.
It states that more and more compelling research is finding a correlation between students enrolled in special education and the number of persons with special needs in correctional facilities, particularly among Black males.
“For example, the arrest rate for African Americans with disabilities is 40 percent compared to 27 for Whites,” the study reports. “The percentage of adolescents in correctional facilities with disabilities is from 30 percent to 70 percent depending upon the State, while students with special needs represent less than 11 percent of the school population.”
Further, contributing factors to these statistics may have to do with the lack of cultural understanding among teachers. The study concluded that the African American culture is much more expressive than that of those who are typically teaching. Sherwin and Schmidt conclude that African American students use different communication codes than typical White Americans. In turn, “aggressive” behaviors are misconstrued to be acts of defiance against teachers, thus creating emotionally oppressive environments for students.
Sherwin and Schmidt surmise that reform needs to be made and further research and work toward modifying these disparities must be conducted to end the attack on African American males in education.
Parents interested in taking action to resolve the special education crisis can join Cynthia Beverly and her coalition of parents at the Brunswick Vista Lanes located at 38241 30th St. East on Nov. 6 at 5 p.m. Contact Beverly at (661) 213-8249.