A new book gives a forum for the experiences of Black students and families.
Black children with disabilities experience greater obstacles in education and poorer academic outcomes than their nondisabled and/or white peers, said Endia Lindo, associate professor of special education in TCU’s College of Education. Black students have also been disproportionately recommended for special education since the U.S. Office of Civil Rights began tracking those numbers in 1968.
When education scholars explore potential solutions, Lindo said, families with students most in need are not being consulted. Nor, she said, are results examined in a way that allows researchers to understand how those in need are responding to interventions.
Lack of knowledge about education norms that reinforce inequality and racial segregation in schools — and the impact on the lives of people living these experiences — has left a chasm where a bridge is most needed.
“Much of the research in the field of special education has looked generally at performance trends by demographic groups without significant evaluation of the contextual factors and the role cultural differences play in the social interactions of teaching and learning,” said Lindo, also core faculty in the Alice Neeley Special Education Research and Service Institute at TCU.
Racism by Another Name: Black Students, Overrepresentation and the Carceral State of Special Education, published in 2021, provides a landscape for understanding and challenging the school experiences of Black students identified for special education. Lindo served as co-editor for the book, along with Dorothy Hines, an associate professor at the University of Kansas, and Mildred Boveda, associate professor at Penn State.
Far too little research has been done about the confluence of racism and special education, Lindo said. The relationship requires analyzing many sociological, educational and special education factors — not to mention racial and cultural disparities.
“This book puts at the center folks who are too often left at the margins of special education research,” Boveda said. “My hope is that more scholars move toward uplifting the perspectives of Black, Indigenous and other racialized groups who too often are talked about but not listened to.”
Included in Racism by Another Name are 14 studies from 28 authors. Important to the text are the experiences of Black students, many of whom are in special education programs, and their families.
One example is that of Nina and her son, whose experiences are explored in Chapter 12, “They Never Listen to the Parent.” Because of her son’s autism, which includes auditory issues, Nina suggested to his school that at lunchtime he use noise-canceling headphones or be given space to decompress. Instead, he was consistently sent to the lunchroom; every time he melted down he was suspended.
Black students disproportionately face issues in school including excessive monitoring and stricter discipline. They can also face an unconscious bias, which occurs when perception is skewed by inaccurate assumptions about a person based on personal characteristics like race, age, gender or appearance.
A 2021 study published in American Psychologist analyzed three years of school records and disciplinary data from 12 schools in an urban mid-Atlantic school district to compare the discipline of 1,563 white and 818 Black students. Researchers found that 26 percent of Black students received at least one suspension for a minor infraction in three years, compared with just 2 percent of white students during the same period. Minor infractions include dress code violations, inappropriate language or using a cellphone in class.
In addition to harsh discipline, Black students are more likely to be sent to a special education classroom.
The diagnosis of specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or aphasia, intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbances can be subjective in part; research suggests that teacher or assessment biases could be a factor. Black students are twice as likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed and three times as likely to be diagnosed with an intellectual disability compared with white peers, according to a report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
A diagnosis of special needs can lead students to what Boveda described as an educational experience akin to a carceral state. “For too many students with disabilities, school operates like a prison,” she said. “Students are surveilled at all times, punished — sometimes physically — for getting out of line and treated as if they were already incarcerated.”
Teachers can misunderstand a student’s classroom behavior, Lindo said, particularly when a student’s cultural expression, which can be interpreted as acts of defiance, is involved.
To foster understanding, Lindo suggested building cultural competence among educators and hiring more teachers from racially and culturally diverse backgrounds. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2017-18 school year, 79 percent of U.S. public school teachers were white, non-Hispanic. Only about 7 percent were Black.
Complicating the matter, Lindo said, is that a mere 2 percent of U.S. public school teachers are Black men. “They’re like unicorns,” she said. “When I get a Black male in one of my classes, I’m so excited. Even one instructor of color can change a student’s trajectory.”
While Lindo hopes that the face of education will eventually include more representative classroom leaders, she and other researchers are determined to highlight issues that impact students of color — particularly those labeled as disabled.
“We wanted to have a home for those voices, and the quality empirical work that has been done … might shed light on folks’ experiences,” Lindo said of the book. “People who are interested in this population may be discouraged in pursuing research in this area — I was heavily discouraged from that work by various advisers; it’s often perceived as some social agenda. We wanted to give folks a voice and a place to publish their work.”
BY RACHEL HEDSTROM