Abstract

In this article the author, a "minority" mother, shares her observations on a special education system that appears to provide significantly different opportunities to children depending on their socioeconomic status and racial group. Culling from her own experience in challenging the disability "diagnosis" of her son and his subsequent segregated placement, and the refusal of services she requested, the author speculates upon the rampant inequities that pervade special education practices. In response, the author urges the need for a genuine dialogue with school personnel where race and socioeconomic status are not held against "minority" parents who seek a fair evaluation of their children and equal access to educational resources.

More Questions than Answers: Socioeconomic Status and The Case for Genuine Parental Input

When reading Thomas Parrish's (2002) commentary, "It is well established that Blacks, for example, are disproportionately poor, which could be expected to correspond with higher levels of special education identification due to related factors such as poor health, inferior schools and family stress" (p. 16), I ask: Why is it that just because a child is Black and lives in the projects there is a greater possibility to schools and society at large that the child will be of poor health? Why is it because of these conditions that the child is more likely to have a learning disability (LD) or even be labeled emotionally disturbed (ED)? Despite half a century passing since the passage of Brown v. Board of Education, Zernike (2000) calls attention to an overall performance gap that still remains tangible, noting, "While low achievement among Blacks was once written off as the consequence of poverty and disadvantage, statistics show it exists across class; children of the most well-off, well-educated Blacks perform only about as well as the children of the poorest white" (p. 2). Labeling children unnecessarily — is that not a form of denying them the opportunity of an appropriate education? Moreover, aren't these children's rights being violated because of socio-economic differences? It is clear that it is the color of certain children's skin and their family dynamics that makes these children disabled (instead of having an actual disability), and results in them being placed in special education. When evaluating children of color, the information from parents should be an integral part of the evaluation. Kay (2002) has described what is essential in an evaluation:

The psycho-educational evaluation should include observational data from the child's parents. Parents have observed the child's behavior from birth to the present time. Parents are "in the trenches" with the child from one school year to the next, and observe the child's strengths and weaknesses in different settings. Parents can provide information about how the child progressed through the grades and how the child interacted with different teachers. Parents also directly observe the child's ability to complete homework in an independent setting (p. 3).

Should minority parents believe that information given to a school psychologist will be truly valued in helping with the development of appropriate educational goals for their children? Burnette (1998) has called attention to the role social class plays in mediating parental interactions with school personnel:

Although involving parents and families is key to raising academic achievement for students from minority backgrounds, schools have often been unsuccessful in achieving high levels of participation from low-income and bilingual parents. These parents may have had negative experiences in school and may be reluctant to meet with educators, or they may have little formal education and feel unqualified to contribute. If they are asked to make contributions for which they don't feel qualified, their negative feelings may be exacerbated. Schools that have raised the achievement of minority students tend to be those in which parents and family members participate in a variety of roles, including shared governance. (http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/eric/e566.html)

Although there has been a lot of research on parents of children with disabilities, social class is rarely addressed. In addition, while there is a growing number of documentaries about the struggles of parents with a disabled child, the majority of these documentaries are about children from middle class backgrounds with visible physical disabilities, such as, Including Samuel (Habib, 2007). But what about parents of color whose children are being overrepresented in special education? What are their struggles within the system as minority parents? After much frustration, do they experience a sense of guilt especially when they feel there is nothing they can do to get their child out of special education?

It is frightening to think that schools cannot be held responsible for having minorities enter a school, only to have many of them placed in special education without any accountability on the part of the school. It seems like teachers are allowed to use special education as a way of weeding out from general education what they perceive as the "trouble[d]" children. Often a child can be the most brilliant in class, but because he cannot sit still for long periods of time he becomes a potential candidate for special education. What is so frustrating is that when a white child may be doing exactly the same thing as a Black child, it would likely be viewed as the white child just having a bad day. The word "special" in special education should be changed to "troubled" education. Was special education not designed to be innovative with teaching methods to help students with disabilities? In today's world, most well-off minority parents do not send their children to public schools. Rather, they place their children in private schools for fear they would not receive a fair and adequate public school education. Placing a Black child in the public school system is a risk every Black parent takes, especially if the child is male and of poor economic status. There is a high risk that the child will be placed in special education. For many parents, the majority of the time is spent being stressed about keeping a roof over their child's head, as well as feeding and clothing him or her. School seems to be the least of their concerns. Parents trust in schools tremendously to act in the best interest of their children because that is what educators are supposed to do — prepare students to be productive assets to the community, contributors to the larger society. Unfortunately, this does not seem to apply to minorities. It seems as if special education becomes the stumbling block in these students' lives.

What is amazing, however, is that when white students are placed in special education they are far more likely to get all the programs that will help them succeed in life. Multiple cases have shown that when white children also are recognized as having learning disabilities, their parents often demand that the local Board of Education pay to have their children go to a private school (Berger, 2007). Most minority parents are not savvy enough to challenge the Board of Education, and if they attempt to, they run the possibility of being labeled a "hard to please" parent. Furthermore, minority parents do not have the time, like many white mothers, who may be stay at home moms. The saddest part of all this inequality is that many white parents can afford to send their kids to private school, but they demand that the Board of Education pay because they have the right for their children to get a free education. Is this not saying that society values white families more so than minority families? To keep minorities in special education, children are likely to have their labels changed from LD to ED. Intelligence tests are not the reason for placing minorities in special education, particularly minority males. It is the evaluation process. Evaluating Black children is one way for teachers, psychologists, social workers to gather information; gathered knowledge does have a great impact on evaluation. However, the focus is no longer about the children anymore; it shifts to the children's family circumstances and culture. The socioeconomic status of a family plays a major part in teachers' attitudes towards minority children. Whether we, as a society, want to face the problem or not, overrepresentation still remains a big issue in schools, and it causes stress to families. Most minority parents have to deal with educators who do not respect parental opinions about their child. Many educators believe they have the answer to minority children's educational problems, and that answer is to place them in special education. What amazes me is that the children who are often labeled emotionally disturbed sit in a classroom all day just clowning around with each other. The majority of these children, if not all of them, are usually males. What frustrates me more is that when you look at these Black males they are strong, of athletic build. Since their minds are so "disturbed," instead of just having them sit around in a classroom, why not let them engage their bodies? All that emotional disturbance they are feeling can be engaged in basketball, running track, playing football, or learning a trade. Anything that can help these children and adolescents feel good about themselves is being taken away from them. Parents never come to know how many of their children, if not academically inclined, could have been some of the greatest artists, carpenters, athletes and tradesmen. School is a place that is supposed to foster learning, where students learn from teachers and teachers learn from students. I can readily view a disability such as autism and justify the amount of money that is being spent on research, the growth of new special schools, and the way that parents become warriors for the cause — as in Autism Speaks. However, it makes me want to shout out to the media, "Please take notice of Overrepresentation of Minorities Speaks!" and promote the narratives of minority parents and their children on store bookshelves. Connor (2009) asserts, "Such stories potentially hold much power to influence a personal disposition that in turn, ultimately influences a person's actions toward making changes in educational research, practice, and public policy" (p. 19).

The overrepresentation of minorities should be viewed as a real issue of great concern. It should be dealt with immediately as this will pave the way for the next generation of Black and Hispanic children to enter public schools, institutions that seem unable to avoid placing minorities in special education classes. Is the overrepresentation of minorities less valued than other topics in education? Why is it that even though there are research and media attention being given to this devastating issue it seems not to be getting any better?

Consequences for Parents When Questioning Traditional Special Education Practices

There are some researchers who would like to see traditional special education reconceptualized, redefined and redesigned (Andrews et al., 2000):

Re-conceptualists believe that, given fundamental problems with the general education system special education is often ineffective, wasteful, and for some students, damaging. The reconceptualist position incorporates a focus on racism, on systems, on researchers as change agents and on the need to redefine moral and ethical behavior. Furthermore if special education is to fulfill its promise of enhancing individual lives, it first must address the racism and cultural stigmas that devalue differences (pp. 259-260).

As a parent of a child who was in special education, my experience was one of anger, guilt, and helplessness. I was under the considerable stress of having to constantly come to school because my son would always be in some incident or another. If he talked too loud, the school would call me for a meeting. All of this only began when I accused the school-based team of having an IEP meeting with only the counselor being present. However, when I received my son's IEP it had many different signatures denoting attendees. I accused them of not implementing what was stated in that document. Furthermore, the only evaluation presented to me was a psycho-social report and when I asked about his psychological report his counselor looked at me like I had asked a stupid question. In the psycho-social report, the recommendation was that we seek outside counseling for my son. At first he was labeled LD, then ED. One afternoon, social services turned up on my doorstep claiming that the school accused me of neglect. I was so shocked that I could not even process what the woman was saying to me. I felt so violated and humiliated as she looked throughout my house, including all cupboards, the freezer, and backyard. The woman said to me that my son did not look neglected or abused. She was very sorry to have to put me through this, but shared that once school personnel have made an accusation, social services must follow through and commence an investigation. The most disturbing thing of all: the caseworker told me that if any of what school personnel had accused me of was founded, it was not going to be my son that they would take from me, but my six year old daughter — because she was the youngest (he was in high school). I broke down and cried because I could not believe that school personnel could be so cruel, just because I was trying to get the best possible setting for my child. The neglect the school claimed was based on their records of my son not coming to school. The investigation that Social Services found that the claim was unfounded, the charges were dropped, and the case closed. What was discovered: my son was not going to his homeroom, and instead was hanging out in the cafeteria. When the counselor received his attendance sheet, instead of investigating why he was not in his class, she automatically and wrongly assumed he was not coming to school. This is why parents and students in special education just go along with whatever the school wants. I found out the hard way that schools can be very cruel where special education is concerned. My son would complain that all his white friends would get in more trouble than he was getting into and they would never get suspended. Eventually, they were sent to schools with smaller settings. When I tried to get my son into those very same schools, personnel came up with all kind of reasons not to let him into them. Until this day, the school has never told me specifically what my son's learning disability is. However, when I had him diagnosed, it was revealed that he had dyslexia. The school then claimed there were not equipped for students with dyslexia.

Sharing Some Thoughts

The overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in special education is a harsh reality that needs to be addressed in more than an article. Parental involvement is an integral part of the whole dilemma. Schools needs to be more welcoming of parental input and not treat individuals as low-income, uneducated people who they want to see only when a student in special education does not follow their rules and regulations. Teachers seem to want the parent to come up to the school and discipline the child publicly, embarrassing him, not only in front of the teacher, but also his peers. This borders on emotional abuse. Yet, from my experience, teachers derive satisfaction from this process. Some parents believe that if they move their children out of their neighborhood and bring them to the "better schools," attended by more whites, then their child will likely receive a better education. This is not the case at all; the better school is where your child will more likely end up in special education. If Black and Hispanic children show any sign of not understanding a concept in a timely manner, or get into fights, they are more likely to be referred by a teacher for some sort of evaluation. What that evaluation means is that the student's life will be re-routed to suit the school and teachers' needs, not those of the student.

Parental involvement is always stressed by schools and the Board of Education, but I ask: Do some schools really want parent involvement? Parents not having an idea about what special education entails take a gamble by signing those consent forms to have their child placed within that system. I definitely believe that early intervention for children who are having learning difficulties serves them well eventually, allowing them to be in general education classrooms. However, any child who is placed in special education in middle school can say goodbye to ever getting out. Is an IEP really realistic, given the needs of the student? Is this not a document that makes it official to place children in special education? Is it not the "fixer upper" for students, a piece of paper that binds them to special education? While there is some media coverage and research that is reported about special education, what exactly is being done concretely to show we are fixing the problem of overrepresentation? Collected data and having a few court cases is not enough. Do educators and society really want this issue resolved? Perhaps in special education classes, teachers could be trained not only in knowledge, but challenged in their beliefs and encouraged to reframe and renew their attitudes towards minority children and their parents. Also, teachers could be provided with more innovative materials, and their work with students could be tracked in the form of a measurable system. Society and parents must hold teachers and schools accountable for students' educational needs. Finally, when teachers make recommendations to special education, they should have observational records with parents, other teachers, and principals, tracking the child's academic and behavioral progress. Special education can no longer be a haven for low academic standards, or a place for inadequate teachers who often end up there — failed or uncaring educators used to warehouse outcasts. Some time ago, Johnson (2000) noted, "Special education teachers in New York were reportedly required to be certified in neither academic subjects nor reading; state officials continued to exempt special education from the more rigorous academic requirements required of regular education students" (p. 99). Since Special Education generates dollars in school, the schools need to justify spending. It seems as if minority students are being used as a means to keep special education going. Do parents actually know how much money is being spent to have their children in Special Education? Does Special Education disclose this information voluntarily to parents? Since so much money is being spend on them, they should be highly valued because of the amount of money they generate. Yet the very fact of their problem status keeps the cash flowing — so they must remain in place. As a parent, it is frustrating to know that thousands of dollars are being spent on a child in Special Education, only to generate a negative diagnosis and earn a label.

Closing Thoughts: Making a Change

The question that remains in my mind is: how can schools and parents work together more effectively to eradicate the overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in special education? Ditrano and Silverstein (2006) agree that developing critical consciousness among parents is crucial, and their work showed :

That as the parents listened to other parents describe very similar experiences, they realized they were not alone in their alienation. They began to change their focus from the difficulties caused by their children to thinking about the lack of support from the schools. Parents reported that they had received misinformation regarding their child's status, progress, and special education classification. In contrast to their previous sense of hopelessness they became determined that their children would be successful in the future. They believed that their children could achieve happiness and self-love. After the parents had collectively developed a body of knowledge about the special education process, they planned a series of action projects. These included seeking out school personnel to get more information becoming effective advocates for their children and making a videotape of the specific components of the current project to present to community groups.

This is a great example for parents who want to empower themselves as a collective body, and who want to be a positive force in helping schools understand that we, as parents, are an essential part of our children's education.

Works Cited

  • Andrews, J. E., Carnine, D. W., Couthinho, M. J., Edgar, E. B., Forness, S. R., Fuchs, L., Jordan, D., Kauffman, J. M., Patton, J. M., Paul, J., Rosell, Rueda, R, Schiller, E., Skrtic, T., & Wong, J. (2000). Bridging the special education divide. Remedial and Special Education, 21(5), 258-260, 267.
  • Berger, J. (2007, March 21). Fighting over when public should pay private tuition for the disabled. Retrieved November 7, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/21/education/21education.html
  • Burnett, J. (1998, March). Reducing the Disproportionate Representation of Minority Students In Special Education. Retrieved May 1, 2009 from http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/eric/e566.html
  • Connor, D. J. (2009). Breaking containment — the power of narrative knowing: Countering silences within traditional special education research. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 13(5), 1-21.
  • Ditrano J., & Silverstien, L. B. (2006). Listening to Parents' Voices: Participatory Action Research in the School. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37(4), 359-366.
  • Fuchs D., & Fuchs, L. (1994). Inclusive schools movement and the radicalization of special education reform. Exceptional Children, 60, 294-309.
  • Habib, D. (producer). (2007). Including Samuel. [documentary].
  • Johnson, M, (2000). Make them go away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and the case against disability rights. Louisville, KY: The Advocado Press.
  • Kay, M. (2002). Preparation of a Psycho-educational Evaluation Report. Retrieved May 1, 2009. http://www.harborhouselaw.com/articles/kay.report.pdf
  • Parrish T. (2002) Racial disparities in the identification, funding and provision of special education. In D. Losen & G. Orfield (Eds.), Racial inequality in special education, (pp.15-37). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
  • Zernike K., (2000, August 4). Racial Gap in Schools Splits A Town Proud of Diversity. The New York Times. p 2.
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