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The Complicated Problem Of Race And Special Education

A study released last month by the American Educational Research Association found that minority students are underrepresented in special education services. This same study raised suspicion around the racial imbalance among special education students and contradicted previous findings that suggested minorities, particularly African Americans, are roped into disabled categories more easily. A group of experts who spoke with HuffPost Live last week said that while minorities may be underrepresented in some categories of special education, they're overrepresented in the most "stigmatizing" groups.

"The data shows that black students are often times two or three times more likely than white students to be identified, especially in the most stigmatizing categories such as emotional disturbance, mental retardation or intellectual disabilities and some other categories," said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies. "They are underrepresented in categories like autism, and perhaps other categories like speech and language."

Losen admits that federal policy is well-intended in its advocacy for children with special needs, but he said it misses the mark. The power to categorize children is still in the hands of individual districts, which Losen said are often rooted in "bias and structural racism." He explained that racism can lead to incorrect or hasty determinations of special needs, which can have massive repercussions for the student. 

"At the end of the day, special education can only be as successful as the people implementing it," said Denise Marshall of the Council of Parent Attorneys & Advocates

Regardless of whether or not minorities are being under- or overrepresented in special education programs, the racial biases underlying individual districts is where change needs to begin and federal policy needs to be adjusted. Losen says more than one out of every three black male disabled students were suspended once in 2011-2012, which is more than twice the rate of white males with disabilities. 

"Black lives matter, but even kids who are legitimately identifying as having special needs are being kicked out of school right and left, and often from very minor offenses, because they're disabled, because they have a disability," Losen said. "And that's actually unlawful."

Watch experts discuss the racism present in special education programs in the video above, and click here for the full segment on racial imbalances in special education.

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