Racial disparities in special ed are costly, unfair

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 18, 2013 - 6:08 PM

Minnesota is leading the country in racial disparities in schools.

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A third-grade boy had an emotional moment during a reading exercise before being calmed down by teacher’s assistant Sarah Johnson, right, at St. Paul’s Hamline Elementary School in November. Hamline is one of the city’s schools that caused an uproar by moving about 270 children considered to have educational or behavioral disorders (EBD) out of their self-contained units into mainstream classes.

Photo: RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • Star Tribune,

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The evidence is clear, the data indisputable. When it comes to discipline and placement in special classes, students of color are treated very differently than their white peers in public schools.

As part of a continuing series on special education in Minnesota, Star Tribune staff writer Jeffrey Meitrodt documented the disparities in a comprehensive Dec. 15 story. Though race-based discrimination in the way students are labeled and disciplined occurs across the nation, Minnesota’s problem is among the worst.

To address the issue, the state and school districts must do a better job of intervening earlier with students, understanding their behavior and helping educators place them in the best possible classroom settings.

Disparities in the treatment of students with emotional problems or behavioral disorder (EBD) reflect the larger racial “gaps’’ in this region, including differences in housing, income, employment and health.

Meitrodt found that more than 4 percent of all black students in Minnesota are labeled EBD, a general category for kids who are considered to be disruptive. That’s more than three times the national average for black students and higher than in any other state.

Federal education officials first notified Minnesota about the problem in 2010, letting education officials know that the bar for defining unequal treatment was set too high. There has been some progress since then, but Minnesota still has the worst disparities in the country, according to a report this year from the federal Government Accountability Office.

The story pointed out that several schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul have become dumping grounds for EBD kids — the majority of them black ­— where little to no learning is taking place. Officials in both districts acknowledged that the situation is unacceptable and said they are working on changes.

Officials in St. Paul deserve credit for facing the problem head-on and having conversations and providing staff workshops on race and cultural competency. In that district, about 270 EBD kids were moved out of self-contained learning centers and back into mainstream classes. That has upset some teachers who say it compromises their ability to teach other kids and increases safety problems. On the other hand, some teachers and parents of the relocated EBD students say that those children do better in environments with a mix of students.

That’s the key — striking the right balance between the educational needs of students and those of educators who must manage their classrooms. The goal must be to properly identify student issues and place them in the appropriate educational settings.

To do that, students of all races should be assessed early. Speaking more loudly or challenging authority more often doesn’t mean a child can’t learn. Nor are those behaviors proof of a clinical emotional or behavioral problem.

Concurrently, teachers need more support and training to help them work with a variety of kids and better understand their issues. They must be able to understand what’s happening with kids to make the appropriate calls about student placement.

Doing those things is labor-intensive and costs money. But providing the right supports for children — such as quality preschool and better early assessments — brings big returns on the investment. It’s less expensive to turn out well-educated, productive young people than it is to support an overcrowded criminal-justice system and growing social services.

One source in the Star Tribune story sadly referred to some EBD programs as an early view of the “pipeline to prison’’ scenario. And a federal official said that the disparities in educating kids ‘‘brings into question the civil rights of those students.’’

Minnesota can and should do better.

  • WHAT TWIN CITIES’ SUPERINTENDENTS SAY

    “We are disappointed in the overrepresentation [of students of color in special education], and we know we must do something about it. … It’s too high.”

    Bernadeia Johnson, Minneapolis public schools

    • • •

    “St. Paul is not afraid to say that our practices need to change. … It can’t continue happening.”

    Valeria Silva, St. Paul public schools

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