Only about 11% of students in San Fransisco Unified School District are black, yet they make up nearly 23% of special education enrollees in the city schools, the San Fransisco Examiner reports. Furthermore, of the students classified as "emotionally disturbed," 47% are black. The situation is not unique to San Fransisco.
Statewide, the SFUSD was one of 61 of the state's 838 school districts with disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic students in special education in the 2008-09 school year, and one of 42 that violated state special-education policies, according to a report from the California Department of Education.
The situation first made headlines in 1971 when advocates for minority students challenged the district to drop IQ testing as a criterion for special education placement. The argument was that the IQ tests were singling out minorities because they were racially biased. Although the district stopped using the tests, the numbers seem to have hardly changed.
This year, the district is spending $45,000 on a study to determine the reason behind the discrepancy, however, Katy Franklin, who is a part of the SFUSD Advisory Committee for Special Education thinks the answer is obvious: institutional racism. She believes that black and white kids are judged differently for acting out, with whites more likely to be thought of as autistic, while the black ones are labeled "emotionally disturbed."
Whatever the cause, the problem is not limited to California. Britt Middleton, writing for BET.com, examines a recent Educational Researcher study which found that there's a definite racial bias in special education placement across the country. The author of the report, Wanda J. Blanchett, argues that such disparities in placement play a role in widening of education achievement between white and minority students.
"Although the field of special education was formed on the heels of the Brown decision and applied rhetoric and tactics from the civil rights movement, the disproportionate referral and placement of African-American students in special education has become a discursive tool for exercising white privilege and racism," Blanchett writes.
The march to throw the question before the court has already begun. A suit filed by several Pennsylvania families in 2007 alleges that the percentage of minorities in special education classrooms in Lower Merion School District are double the average of minority students.
The plaintiffs further alleged that there were no African-American students in any honors, AP or IB courses between 2005 and 2008. The school district is also accused of misidentifying certain African-American students "as being disabled and mentally retarded in order to remove them from the general curriculum," the report adds.
Assuming the case gets past the summary judgment motion filed by the defendant, the arguments will begin on November 1st.