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The society is characterized by various detrimental outcomes of complex social forces, which are biased against Black males in schools and society; their frequent placement in special education programs. Numerous studies have been conducted to investigate the treatment accorded to African males referred to special education services. However, since 1967, a substantial amount of research has indicated a disproportionate referral and assignment of black males to special education programs for the handicapped and mentally disturbed (Berkowitz, & Rothman 1967; Mackler, 1967; Dunn, 1968|). Various measures have been adopted to address and restructure the over representation issue (Bailey & Habin, 1980; Oakland, 1977); however, the disproportionate assignment of Black males in special education goes on (United States Department of Education, 2006). Going hand in hand with the disproportionate treatment of Black males in special education is the continued disproportionate involvement of Black male students in school discipline issues, suspension, and subsequent expulsions.
The enactment of Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EHA), into law mandated special education in 1975. The Act has been renamed to Individuals with disabilities Education Act (IDEA). EHA was aimed at providing specialized treatment services to students, who by virtue of their disabilities could not benefit from the regular education system and curriculum. The Act was intended to control and extend to all children, irrespective of their disabilities, the provision of special education services, which were available in various parts of the nation. Conversely, during its enactment into law, there were various signs of misuse of this umbrella construct. This was evidenced by EHA's requirement that the assessment for education should not be biased and should be undertaken by a multidisciplinary team. However, notwithstanding the widespread concern, numerous challenges have curtailed the implementation of this requirement.
Racial, gender, cultural, and linguistic biases have remained an integral aspect of the special education processes, more so for the Black males. This paper will aim at establishing that the entire referral process for Special Education Services is biased against African American male students. The biases run from their first treatment in the regular education system through to the disproportionate referral to, assessment for, and placement in the Special education Programs. The paper will commence witha short summary of the problem and the causes of the problem, and will conclude with recommendations that will reflect that the disproportionate treatment against African American male students with education disabilities has been created by the schools, and must be dismantled by all schools.
Explanation of the Issue
Disproportionality is considered as one of the most complex factors in the special education field (Skiba, Simmons, Ritter, Kohler, Henderson, & Wu, 2003). Disproportionality has been defined as the over representation and under representation of a certain group or demographic population in the special or the gifted education programs relative to the representation of the group in the entire student population (National Association for Bilingual Education, 2002). The disproportionate placement of students from a certain group in Special Education Programs implies that the group has a higher representation in these programs than their whole school population. The issue that arises is the relativity of placement, rather than in absolute numbers. In assessing the disproportionate numbers, it is critical to determine the percentage of a given group in the entire population, and then compare the percentage of the group's representation in special education programs. It entails a plus or minus 10 percent of the anticipated percentage based on the school age population (National Association for Bilingual Education, 2002). For instance, assuming that African American population accounts for 16 percent of the United States school enrollment (United States Department of Education, 2006), then it is should be anticipated that the special education enrollment range within a plus or minus 1.6 percent of the total enrollment. Therefore, any special education enrollment, which falls outside this range from 14.4 to 17.6 percent, should be regarded as disproportionate. The United States Department of Education (2006) estimates that13.5 percent of the total K-12 student population is under the special education programs. Furthermore, some subgroups of the students, more so, students from linguistically and culturally diverse populations, are referred to special education programs at rates that are higher or lower than 13.5 percent. The disproportion is skewed against Black males; they are more likely to be referred to special education programs compared to their White counterparts.
The disproportionate involving African American male students arises when educationalists employ their conscious or unconscious racist or ethnocentric stereotype beliefs about the African American males in the interpretation of the Black male students' street corner language and behavior (Foster, 1974, 1986, 1990). This misapprehension and misunderstanding marks the first step towards the disproportionate treatment against African American males in special education programs, suspension, and discipline issues. Numerous researchers have tried to explain the Black male street corner language and behavior; Abrahams (1963) and Kochman (1972) were the first authors to explain the street corner language and behavior to the public. Furthermore, in his various works, Foster (1974, 1975, and 1986) offered a historical context, explained, described, and discussed the Black street corner language and behavior in relation to what African American males portrayed both in school and in class. Additionally, Jackson (1974) and Paercelay and Dweck (1994) have enriched the literature on the street corner language and behavior, while Gates (1988) raised the street corner language and behavior to a higher academic and scholarly understanding and acceptance. All the above researchers and many more have made a tremendous contribution to the understanding of the corner street language and behavior as a contributor to the disproportionate treatment against African American males in special education programs.
Foster (1974; 1975; and 1986) has developed a model, which has categorized African American males in inner-city schools into four distinct categories. The street corner youngster is one of the category; possibly three students in a class of 30 students are likely to bring with him into the classroom the street corner language and behavior. In most instances, Black males use their street corner language and behavior as survival tactics and coping techniques. These were critical in their survival on the street corner; however, they were a source of problem in school. Some of the survival and coping methods are; ribbing', woofin', and playin' the dozens among other nonverbal kinesic behaviors. The most popular non-kinesic behavior was a walking style, which depending on the place and section where one lives, may be referred to as ditty boppin', pimp walkin', or cake walking.
Ditty boppin', a walking style, caused substantial problems to African American male students who adopted the walk in school. The walk is regarded as dirty walk, and many regular and special education instructors get infuriated, whenever they spot an African American male student ditty boppin'; however, they teachers cannot explain the reasons for their annoyance. In instances where African American female students adopted ditty doppin', the teachers would get even more agitated. There are instances where students have been suspended for ditty doppin'; in Buffalo, New York, African American male students have been suspended ditty doppin', often termed as "walking in a disrespectful manner" (Breinin, 1981). Another case is a case of a 17 year old that was sent to a much-differentiated program preserved for students whose emotions are severely disturbed. The student's record did not indicate any brutal acting-out, aggressive, or threatening behavior; however, it was noted that the student would walk in the school's hallways in a "sexually offensive manner" (Foster 1986; 1990). However, a white teacher who grew up in the streets as a poverty-stricken youth, would adopt a completely different stand on ditty doppin'; the teacher is most likely to jokingly tell the student that he is tress passing in his corner since he (the teacher) is the only one allowed to ditty dopp' there. Thus, a review of the above scenarios depicts that the person evaluating the behavior injects a personal twist on the interpretation of behavior; this offers the basis for the interpretation of the behavior. Therefore, disproportionate treatment of African American males while being referred to special education programs is highly dependent on personal biases. Considering the challenges in instituting a multidisciplinary team in education assessment, African American males are most likely to suffer disproportionate treatment at the hands of the majority white educationalists that run the schools.
Is Disproportionate Treatment Really A Concern?
For a majority of America's teachers, they are often faced with challenging situations in class regarding the African American students. Out of the concern, they have for their students, and their determination to ensure that the students get the critically needed help; these teachers carry out the only option available to them, referring the students to special education programs thereby causing gender imbalance. Gender balance in the regular classrooms has not been given maximum attention by educational policies and legislations like the No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Gender equity in the classroom is a very sensitive issue that has parents, educators, guardians in a dilemma and perhaps making them resolve to be blind to the inequality (Spring, 2009). All the time, people are asking about the education of the female children, what happens to the boys? Moreover, people need to be worried about the continual system that has been used to evaluate the African American male and refer him to a special school. The bias in the classroom and the evaluation system is what has made many black males to make up almost 40% of the population in Special Education facilities. This system of evaluation is what has led to a total gender imbalance in the real classroom situation and even in the special education.
A significant number of students are likely to benefit from the special education program services; however, this may not be the most appropriate option for students. Rather than offering the needed solutions to the students, experts warn that inappropriate special education referrals may have adverse effects on the students in the end (Harry & Klingner, 2006; National Alliance of Black School Educators, 2002; Losen & Orfield, 2002). Furthermore, the premature initiation of the special education referral process adds to the disproportionality in special education. Branding students as disabled while in the real sense, they are not results in the access of unnecessary services and support. Furthermore, it limits the opportunities for students who genuinely need the special education program services; the misidentified students are likely to suffer from limited access to the rigorous curriculum they critically need, and consequently suffer from diminished expectations. More importantly, misbranding students creates a false impression on the students' intellect and educational potential. There are various reasons:
Once students are enrolled in the special education programs, they tend to be confined in the special education classes (Harry & Klingner, 2006).
Students are more likely to be subjected to a less thorough education curriculum (Harry & Klingner, 2006).
Less academic expectations are placed for students attending special education programs; this is likely to result in reduced academic and post-secondary prospects (National Research Council, 2002; Harry & Klingner, 2006).
Disabled students are often socially stigmatized by the society (National Research Council, 2002).
Students confined in special education programs have less access to their academically able peers (Donovan & Cross, 2002).
The referral process to special education programs is highly disproportional; the disproportionality is likely to contribute to significant racial segregation (Losen & Orfield, 2002; Harry & Klingner, 2006).
Dunn (1968) studied trends that led to the increased number of African American males in special schools. Branding a student as requiring special education implies that the child suffers from a disorder, and consequently, the child is in need of specialized education and other therapeutic interventions. Ideally, it is anticipated that special education will improve the student's academic performance; however, positive outcomes of special education have been seriously questioned in many students (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Dunn, 1968). In an ideal situation, special education is meant to improve the performance of students but, in the real situation, with the exception to jail, it is the only place where an African American male has been placed.
Disabilities can be classified into low-incidence and high-incidence. Low incidences include autism, severe sensory impairments, mental retardation while high incidences include emotionally disturbed, learning disabilities, language and speech disorder, and mild mental retardation. According to Henry & Klinger (2006), high incidence disabilities are diagnosed in a subjective manner with a tight adherence to the biological factors like inheritance. On the contrary, low-incidence disabilities are diagnosed based on medical assessment.
Furthermore, disability diagnosis is likely to lead to lowered expectations; therefore, special education is lowered to a place where non-performing students are referred to (Meyer & Patton, 2001), as opposed to a place where learners are sent to improve their educational performance. Therefore, disproportionate treatment has numerous implications. Citing the above reasons, a disproportionate special education process, which is skewed against African American male students, implies that these students are branded poor academic performers; this is not the case in the real sense, and may result in their poor performance in actual terms. This is an unwelcome outcome, and a policy issue that needs correction.
High-Incidence Disproportionality against African Americans
Minority students, and more so, Africans, African Americans, Hispanic, and Native Americans have a higher incidence rates in the special education identification, as opposed to their European American counterparts (Valenzuela, Copeland, Qi, & Park, 2006). The special education identification rates, which are determined based on racial and ethnic groups indicate 5% Asians and Pacific Islanders, 11% Hispanics, 12% Whites, 13% American Indians, and 14% Blacks (Donovan and Cross, 2002). African Americans have a prevalent representation in all the disability areas, and the disproportionality is more prominent in the higher-incidence areas (Harry & Klingner, 2006).
Mental retardation is one of the areas of the largest over-representation. Males of the African Americans descent make up 16 percent of the entire student population; however, they make 33 percent of the students who are assigned to the mentally retarded special programs (Donovan & Cross, 2002). This implies that 2.64 percent of the African American students are diagnosed and referred to the institutions meant for the mentally retarded as opposed to 1.18 percent of the European American students. The statistics reveal that African American students are twice as likely as European American students to be branded mentally retarded are. These are national statistics and they vary according to geographical regions. For instance, in Virginia, African Americans comprise 20 percent of the students' population; however, they make 28 percent of the students in special education programs and 51 percent of the students in Mild Mental Retardation (MMR) programs (Ladner & Hammons, 2001). Furthermore, (Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999; Valenzuela et al., 2006) observe that African American populations in special education programs may be greater in districts, which have lesser African American populations or the more affluent districts.
The above findings underscore the subjectivity that characterized the process of identifying students with mild disability; the process is highly subjective. The diagnosis of students with mild disabilities is challenging enough; however, the processes are complicated further by the entry of multifaceted issues of culture and quality schooling (Harry and Klingner, 2006). The authors observe that it is argued that the process of determining a student's eligibility for special program is a science. However, they state that social forces interact to brand as disabled, the students who the regular-education system finds too hard to serve.
High-Incidence Disproportionality against African American Males
Males are more likely that females to be referred for special education programs (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 2001; Coutinho & Oswald, 2005). Furthermore, African American males comprise the most vulnerable population; they are as twice likely to be regarded as mentally retarded in 38 states, educational disabilities in 29 states, and learning disabilities in 8 states (Ferri and Connor (2005). Various factors explain the disproportionate representation of African American male students in special education: biological factors; males, as opposed to females, are more prone to biological defects such as birth defects; these are likely to result in disabilities. External behaviors, as mentioned earlier, males are more likely to adopt behaviors, which are more disruptive in the classroom. Lastly is the referral bias, the referring teachers may place unrealistic expectations on the male students (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 2001).
Females are less likely to portray externalizing behavior problems and educationalists are less likely to identify, and address the female students' more widespread internalizing problems; thus, the under identification of female students remains relatively high. The under identification of the female students does not rule out the significant risk facing the African American male students; they are the foremost candidates for special education. Furthermore, compared to their European male counterparts, they are more likely to: be suspended from school at a younger age, receive longer suspensions, be sent to low-ability classes, be retained in a grade level for more than one period, be scheduled in punishment and correctional facilities, and be branded more pathological labels that they warrant (Irvine, 1990; Oakes, 1994; Coutinho, Oswald, & Forness, 2002).
Discipline and punishment are the major factors related to the African American male students and the special education disproportionality. School suspension, as opposed to other factors, has been more consistently linked to special education disproportionality; African American male students stand greater chances of getting maximum disciplinary measures (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002; Skiba, Poloni-Staudinger, Simmons, Feggins-Azzis, & Chung, 2005). A study conducted by Lo and Cartledge (2007) revealed that African American male students, as opposed to the African American female and European male and female students are more prone to disciplinary risk. Furthermore, the study revealed that the disciplinary referrals for students with the greatest risk aggravated; the students did not portray the anticipated improvements; rather, their social behaviors worsened. The findings suggest that the excessively punitive processes aggravate the problem behaviors and increase the risk of African American students to be expelled from school and the likelihood of their referral to special education programs.
Treatment of Black Males at the Special Education Facilities and Programs
Most Restrictive Settings for Black Males
It is important to note that, the biased system of education is very continual in America especially for black males. In the facilities or programs, these students tend to get the most restrictive placement. In terms of IDEA, a student who has been referred for special education programs should be placed in the least restrictive environment. A non-restrictive environment is made up of three apparatus. The first one is that students who have been diagnosed as having disabilities should be placed in the most appropriate manner with students who are not disabled and educated together. Special classes for children with severe disabilities are only allowed if that child cannot be helped with supplementary services and aids. The last mechanism is that, in the most appropriate manner possible, a child with disabilities should be put together with those who do not have disabilities in extracurricular activities. On the contrary, the above mechanisms are overlooked when a real situation in a special school is examined. The black male is placed in a separate class, and regarded as having a severe disability.
Access to Education Atmosphere and Curriculum
In these socially divided settings, they have a big problem accessing the general education atmosphere and the curriculum (Valenzuela et al., 2006). A study conducted by Fierros and Conroy in 1998 showed that, almost 50 percent of black male students placed under the special education programs were taught in separate self contained classrooms, while less than a third were put in an all-inclusive classroom setting. This implies that, in either the general or the special program, the African American male is slowly being targeted, and eliminated from the school system.
Black males in special schools received inappropriate services for instance counseling, career choice and motivation (Moore, Henfield & Owens, 2011). In terms of discipline, they are bound to receive harsher penalties than the other races. The males also feel that counseling cannot help them because they are not understood. More often than not, the instructors at those schools refer them easily to the Juvenile Justice System. IDEA gives one loophole that instructors at special schools have exploited to the maximum. According to this act, a least restrictive environment is not general but rather determined on a case basis. This means that it is easy for instructors to refer a student to the juvenile system. This act somehow favors racial segregation and makes education to be a civil rights issue.
Teachers' Perceptions towards the African American Male
A study conducted by La Vonne, Audrey, Gwendolyn and Bridgest aimed at establishing the perceptions that teachers have about black males (La Vonne, Audrey, Gwendolyn & Bridgest, 2003). About 140 middle school teachers filled a questionnaire as they viewed a videotape. The results were analyzed, and it was revealed that the perceptions that the teachers had towards black males were the reason behind the differential treatment in the classroom situation and the determining factor in sending them for specialized education.
African Americans have been subjected to more than three centuries of racial discrimination. They realized that the white society could never accept them, as they are thus the need for establishing a cultural identity (San Juan, 2002). In the context of culture, cultural identity is what injects meaning and security to the life of those who are perceived in the society as inferior or minor. San Juan (2002) argues that minority groups are often treated as powerless and less deserving; therefore, they tend to derive their power from cultural identity. Culture is like a mirror through which we view others and ourselves (Razack, 1998). Teachers often misunderstand culturally conditioned behaviors of children and are very unresponsive towards their culture. This is what results into psychological discomfort, poor achievements by the African American males (Connolly, 1998).
In the context of race and culture, the American curriculum emphasizes that the white race is superior. Anything bad is black. If students are told to draw a rotten fruit, they paint it to be black. This biased curriculum does not look into the psychological discomfort that this may cause to black males. If males who are painted as black or bad refuse to agree with the term, that is labeled as aggression and they are referred to a special program. This curriculum teaches students to be what they can never be instead of embracing what they really are. In fact, it is hard for the black male to embrace a system that dismisses his identity (Razack, 1998). Those who miss to connect and close that gap are immediately sent to special programs or juvenile centers.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Over-representation of black males in special education programs has stirred national concerns for a period of over four decades. Since the commencement of sampling of school districts by the United States Office of Civil Rights in 1968, African American students, and more so, male students have been overrepresented in special education programs, particularly in the mental and emotional disturbance categories (Artiles, Trent, & Palmer, 2004; Gamm, 2007). Numerous policies, procedures, and practices, initiated at the national, state, district, school, and class levels have led to over representation of culturally and linguistically diverse student populations in the special education programs and under-representation, in the gifted and talented programs. To promote the education and success of all students, educationalists need to be acquainted with how they can contribute in the reduction of inappropriate identification in the special education programs and to improve the opportunities available to the culturally and linguistically diverse students so that they can enhance their gifts and talents.
Efforts that are targeted at the anticipation of the problem and early intervention are the most effective and productive. For instance, effective instructional and behavior interventions, which eliminate the need for special education referrals are highly effective in saving the African American student. The focus need to be laid on the educationalists who are opposed to the acquisition of cultural, instructional, and management competencies, which are critical in correcting the situation. Furthermore, educators should create a curriculum that embraces the dimensions of the African American culture (Banks, 2006). This curriculum should be set in the context of communalism, oral tradition, harmony, spirituality, affect, dynamism, open individualism, and social perspective interactions (Kumashiro, 2001). The perspectives of the teachers should be examined and how their cultural perceptions influence decisions on who is referred for special education. Teachers should be trained on how to be culturally responsive to the black males in schools.
Lastly, all individual assessments should be undertaken in a culturally responsive and unbiased manner. This can be achieved through various means:
Allowing more time: Enough time should be provided for the assessment of students of diverse backgrounds. This is critical in gathering critical background information, which will enable the implementation of alternative and flexible alternatives.
Gathering sufficient background information: this is critical in developing the evaluation context. A review of all the available background information such as school attendance, household variations and movement, family structure, education, medical, and family history should be conducted.
Addressing the function of language; Educationalists and the multidisciplinary teams should undertake dual language assessments during the evaluation process. This entails the determination of the student's language history, dominance, and preference.
Utilizing nonverbal and alternative assessment approaches. In the assessment of students with a background that has a variety of culture and language, standardized nonverbal cognitive and translated tests should be used. Additional assessment techniques such as curriculum based assessments, and test-teach-test approaches and in-direct data sources such as parent and teacher reports and informal observations and interviews are critical in completing an accurate assessment.
Recognizing nonstandard processes, the multidisciplinary assessment team should record in its report that the information was gathered through interpreters, and the testing procedures used and the reasons for their use.