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Studies show racial bias in special education

Black students are three times as likely as white students to be labeled "mentally retarded" or "emotionally disturbed" and put in special education classes, where they are less likely to end up with high school diplomas or a quality education, according to a set of studies released Friday.

The 14 studies, commissioned by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard, outline ways in which black and Hispanic students receive a poorer, more segregated education. Minority children who need special education often end up with less than they need, and others who do not need services are pushed into special classes anyway.

"To the extent that minority students are misclassified, segregated or inadequately served, special education can contribute to a denial of equality of opportunity, with devastating results in communities throughout the nation," the authors said in a preface to the studies.

Nationwide, about 11 percent of students are classified as needing special education, which includes students with a range of disabilities, from depression and anxiety to autism and severe mental retardation.

Statistics have shown for years that black students are more likely to be classified as disabled and placed in special education. But the authors of the studies, who were spurred to do the work after complaints about special education from black educators and parents at an NAACP conference, said this was the first time the statistics have been examined so widely or so intricately.

One study looked, for instance, at a breakdown by state, and found that Connecticut, Mississippi, South Carolina and North Carolina, black students are four times as likely to be in special education. As the number of Hispanic students grows, they, too, are disproportionately being sent into special education, another study found.

While the overrepresentation of black students has often been explained as a consequence of poverty, the studies said that even among black and white students whose parents have high income and education levels, the black students are more likely to be in special education.

"The data shows quite unambiguously the intensity of the problem," said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project. "Special education and civil rights have tended to be separated to a considerable degree. But special ed is a civil rights issue. Minority treatment within special ed is a civil rights issue."