Board responds to claims of racial imbalance in special education

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 3, 2006

Virginia Department of Education officials said nearly 100 of the state’s 132 school districts have disproportionately higher numbers than expected of minorities in individual special education categories, and Suffolk is one of them.

VDOE provides racial disproportionality information to each district every year by comparing:

n the percentage of black students in the special education population compared to those in the general student population.

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n the percentage of black students in the disability categories of mental retardation, speech/language impairments, emotional disturbance, other health impairments, specific learning disabilities, and autism with the percentage of those in the general population.

n the percentage of time black students spend in special education in each of the above categories compared to their white counterparts.

Based on data from the 2004-05 school year, the Suffolk School District was cited in the latter two categories, according to VDOE documents.

Julie Grimes, public information specialist for the Virginia Department of Education, said the letters were not necessarily notices to schools of issues that needed to be fixed, but rather an alert to potential problems.

The goal for these yearly evaluations is to prevent special education from becoming a dumping ground for struggling minorities, who in reality have no disability and likely would benefit from alternative programs such as differentiated instruction.

VDOE officials want to ensure all students are properly classified n that they truly belong in the various special education categories.

Sandra Witcher, director of special education for Suffolk Public Schools, said they don’t believe they have the high racial discrepancy VDOE officials found, but are examining the information.

“It’s not just an issue of black and white, but of inappropriate identification,” she said. “Does a student truly have a disability? Or are they just not getting enough of the right kind of instruction?”

In a district that has a majority of black students, it is not unexpected to find higher numbers of that race in special education, Witcher said. As of June 28, Suffolk schools had a population of 13,589, with 57 percent black, 39 percent white and another 4 percent other or unspecified.

VDOE advised districts to develop an action plan to address disproportionality, which Suffolk has already done, Witcher said. It includes: reviewing all students in special education, particularly those in the mental retardation category; looking at each student’s progress before and after he or she was classified as mentally retarded; having the staff attend workshops and conferences on early intervention; and more.

VDOE will examine the plan and provide technical assistance, Witcher said.

As for ramifications for continued disproportionality, some districts were required to set aside 15 percent of their federal funding for early intervention, Witcher said. Suffolk was not among those districts.

Many districts have questioned the VDOE’s method for determining disproportionality, so much so that state officials are working to revise it, Witcher added. A new method could be in use as soon as next year.

Another piece to the whole puzzle, Witcher said, is the eligibility criteria for special education. Every school district uses slightly different methods to determine a student’s classification, so VDOE officials are considering developing statewide criteria.

Paul Raskopf, director of financial and data services for the VDOE’s Office of Special Education and Student Services