The Misrepresentation of Minorities in Special Education Classes

This past July, a new law went into effect here in Connecticut that requires the State Department of Education to identify school districts that “disproportionately and inappropriately identif[y] minority students as requiring special education because such students have a reading deficiency.”[1] Under this statute, the term “minority student” takes on the public’s common understanding: any student that is non-white or of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity.

In 1954, the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that struck down de jure racial segregation, noting that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”[2] Since then, many great strides have been made to offer free, appropriate public education to all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, and disability.

Racial Discrepancies in Special Education

In the realm of special education, Congress has enacted various statutory schemes that provide comprehensive protections for children with mental or physical disabilities. This occurred most notably in the form of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and its predecessor, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), which “ushered in an era in which the federal government became active in financing and regulating special education services provided by local districts.”[3]

The goal was noble: ensuring that students with disabilities would receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) on par with students in regular classrooms. Unfortunately in practice, African American and Hispanic students are being disproportionately identified as having emotional behavioral disorders and intellectual disabilities, and are thus “more likely to be served in special education classes and residential placements more than their peers.”[4] 

One study in Massachusetts, for example, revealed that while African Americans represented approximately 12.4% of the total U.S. population, they were “approximately 1.3 times (approximately 30%) more likely than non-African American students to be found eligible for special education.”[5] Hispanic students received similar results.

Misinterpretation of Culture and Behavior in Connecticut

What is the source of this improper labeling? As a New York Times columnist mused, “the students are being placed in special education because educators are misinterpreting behavior problems and misunderstanding cultural differences.”[6] Connecticut was not innocent in this respect, as one civil rights lawyer dubbed “Connecticut’s dirty little secrets in education.”[7] As further highlighted in the same Times article:

  • Hartford: Hispanic students were “more than four times as likely as whites to be identified as having a learning disability.”
  • Norwalk: African American students constituted 36% of the special education population, but was only 25% of the total student population.
  • West Hartford: African American students were “more than five times as likely as whites to be diagnosed as having an emotional disturbance.”
  • Windham: Hispanic students constituted 58% of the total student population, but represented 64% of the special education population and “nearly 70 percent of students classified as having a speech or language impairment.”

Other reasons cited include subjectivity in decision-making that allows for bias and misinterpretation of cultural cues – such as “bad” as a slang for “cool” being misread by an evaluator as exposure to “negative influences.”[8] In this example, the social worker involved stated, “It really started to speak loudly to the fact that people involved didn’t understand our community.”

Nonetheless, Connecticut’s Public Act 12-116 § 90 is certainly a step in the right direction to ensure that minority students are not inappropriately and disproportionately placed into special education programs when it is not warranted. Only time will tell whether meaningful progress will be made, or whether litigation will be necessary because such progress is “uneven” or “moving too slowly in the desired direction.”[9]

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

If you are a parent who believes that your child has been improperly placed as a special education student, it is imperative that you are aware of your rights and consult an experienced school law attorney. Should you have any questions about special education or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] Public Act 12-116 § 90(a).

[2] Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 495, 74 S. Ct. 686, 692 (1954).

[3] “Special but Unequal: Race and Special Education,” by Matthew Ladner and Christopher Hammons. 2001: http://www.dlc.org/documents/SpecialEd_ch05.pdf

[4] “The overrepresentation of African American students in special education,” by Latanya Fanion. July 22, 2010: http://www.examiner.com/article/the-overrepresentation-of-african-american-students-special-education

[5] “Disproportionality: A Look at Special Education and Race in the Commonwealth,” by Matthew Deninger. Pp. 1, 4. September 2008: http://www.doe.mass.edu/research/reports/Edbrief_final.pdf

[6] “Special Education and Minorities,” by Avi Salzman. November 20, 2005: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/20/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/20ctspecial.html

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.