WASHINGTON — At the age of 3, Tyrone Colson was diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic abnormality that is often accompanied by developmental disabilities. Because of this diagnosis, an individualized education plan (IEP) — documents detailing Colson’s special needs, and a plan for how his school would help him reach his potential — was already in place when Colson arrived for his first day of school.
In theory, being diagnosed before he even started school should have given Colson a leg up. The odds he faced, as a black boy in special education, were actually stacked against him.
“The services are out there, but a lot of times, parents of color just don’t have the information and resources they need to fight for them,” said Daisy Brown, Tyrone’s mother. Brown spent years pushing schools to follow the law, after giving up her job doing administrative support work for a government relations firm.
White students with special needs are far more likely to graduate with a traditional diploma than are their black and brown peers. In ways big and small, the effects of race and racism magnify the negative consequences that often come with being placed into special education. Not only are nonwhite students more likely to be assigned to lower-resourced schools that struggle to provide them with the services that they are entitled to, navigating the special education system often presents unique challenges for parents of color, experts say.
A Hechinger Report analysis of federal data exposes the stark racial gap between different groups of special education students. Nationally, 76 percent of white students in special education who exited high school in 2014-15 earned a traditional diploma. That falls to 65 percent for Hispanic students and 62 percent for black students with special needs. But those racial gaps are much wider in some states.
In Wisconsin, 84 percent of white students in special education who exited left high school in 2014-15 earned a traditional diploma, while just 53 percent of black students and 71 percent Latino students with disabilities did so. In Nevada, which has some of the very worst outcomes in the country for students with disabilities, just 17 percent of black students and 27 percent of Latino students exited with a regular diploma. Nearly 40 percent of Nevada’s white students with special needs receive a diploma.
In essence, a special education placement exacerbates racial inequalities seen throughout the education system. Experts say black and Latino parents often feel ignored and belittled at meetings with school officials, and their special-needs children are more likely to attend schools in high-poverty districts that lack the resources to provide them with the services they need to catch up.
Paul Morgan, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University, said that the economic disadvantage often faced by black and Latino special-needs children has been exacerbated by the way Congress funds special education. The federal government has failed to pay 40 percent of the “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities, a responsibility outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The burden of making up for those unfunded expenses falls on schools, and particularly hard on the poorer school districts that disproportionately serve black and brown students.
“When poor parents and parents of color fight for their children, they are seen as aggressive.”
But the problem runs much deeper than differences between school districts. In Washington, D.C., where there is just one school district, 77 percent of white students with special needs who exited during the 2014-15 school year left with a diploma, while just 57 percent of their black and Latino peers did.
In addition to being more likely to live in neighborhoods with better-resourced schools, white and affluent parents are also often better-positioned to take advantage of federal disability law to get what they need for their children, said Morgan. “These services are often difficult to secure, they’re expensive and schools don’t necessarily want to provide them,” he said. “So it’s parents who are better-resourced, in terms of information and social networks and time, that are able to persist and go through the legal wrangling sometimes necessary to get what they need.”
Morgan’s research demonstrates that even when children in the same schools display the same needs, white English-speaking children are more likely to receive the services that they need to excel.
Even a well-informed parent like Daisy Brown, who spent hours on the Internet researching special education services after she became her ailing mother’s full time caretaker, hit roadblocks when she tried to advocate for her son. In middle school, administrators wanted to cut back the number of hours of speech therapy Tyrone received from one and a half hours a week to half an hour per week. Brown was certain that her son would fall behind without those extra hours, so she used Tyrone’s health insurance, a Medicaid program for children with disabilities, to get him help from outside services. Brown picked him up every Thursday afternoon to go to a local hospital to get the additional therapy. For the next five years, Therapy Thursdays became a family tradition.
The next hurdle came while Colson was still in middle school, when Brown realized that he had been placed on what is called the certificate track, which meant he would graduate with a certificate of completion, an alternate diploma that is not recognized by most colleges and employers. That began a four-year-long fight to get him onto the diploma track. “I just wasn’t going to let them put him on the certificate track, where they just give them a piece of paper so they could work at a gas station,” said Brown.
Colson, who is on the autism spectrum, initially had trouble using and comprehending complex words, but thanks to the additional therapy he received, Brown felt he had made great strides. But school administrators ignored that progress, Brown said.
“He was smarter than anyone in the class. The teacher counted on him to help her with the other students,” Brown recalled. “I would just keep going in and telling them, ‘I think my son can be on the diploma track.’ But they put up brick walls.”
Around the country, black and Latino students are far more likely to be put on the track toward these alternative diplomas. During the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year of available federal data, more than 37,000 students with special needs graduated with a certificate instead of a diploma. And while black and Latino students made up just 45 percent of students who exited the special education system that year, they made up 57 percent of those who received a certificate. White students, on the other hand, were much more likely to leave high school with a traditional diploma.
Brown eventually used Tyrone’s insurance for a second evaluation, outside of the school. “The school’s evaluations will tell you that the school is giving the child exactly what they need,” said Brown. The outside evaluation convinced school administrators to retest Colson: This time, they found he was ready for the diploma track.
While district spokesperson Kristina Saccone declined to address the specifics of Colson’s case, citing federal student privacy laws, she said that the district is aware of these achievement gaps and is committed in its new strategy plan to addressing them. Among the plan’s strategic priorities is strengthening instruction for special education students.
“It’s really important to continue to look at the achievement gap, it’s a challenge for us and it’s something that we are working,” said Saccone. “We just got a report from the American Institutes for Research, highlighting the progress the district has made, but also specifically focusing on the achievement gaps that remain particularly for students of color and special education students.”
Coleman became one of the students to narrow that gap. He eventually graduated with a traditional diploma, and is currently enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia. Brown’s voice fills with pride when she talks about how her son excelled once he was placed on the diploma track. “His transcript looks so beautiful it’s scary. It starts out with him on the certificate track in ninth grade, and then he moves over to diploma track, and there isn’t a single C or D on that diploma-track work,” she said.
Brown is matter-of-fact when she talks about the sacrifice she had to make to ensure her son beat the odds, however. To help him succeed, she had to quit her own career. “I realize that if I didn’t leave the workforce my son wouldn’t be as far along as he is,” said Brown.
Not all students are as lucky. Kenyatta Burns’ story highlights what happens to the many black students in special education who don’t have a parent in their corner, let alone one who is willing and able to quit their job and devote themselves full time to advocating for their child. As a child, the now 20-year-old North Carolina native was in and out of foster care and often struggled with behavior problems. Eventually, she received a diagnosis of ADHD and bipolar disorder. The diagnoses should have triggered extra supports at school, but Burns said that much-needed help never materialized.
While Burns struggled at a Durham, North Carolina, elementary school, she says she began to catch up academically after she transferred to a middle school in nearby Raleigh. But her success was short-lived: She ended up back at Durham Public Schools in eighth grade. That year, the school didn’t ask her to take any end-of-course exams. Instead, she was put in a room to watch movies while other students took their tests. She was passed up to ninth grade anyway.
“When I got to high school, I crashed. I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “I was screaming for help with work … I would just sit in the room and let the days go by.”
At the end of ninth grade, Burns’ mom gave her a choice: go to school full time or work full time. She picked working at a McDonald’s. Since making that decision, Burns has changed course and is now pursuing a high school equivalency degree, with tutoring help from the Durham Literacy Center. When she started going to the center two years ago, she said, she didn’t even know how to multiply whole numbers. She added she’s learned a lot — including how inadequately the public schools prepared her.
“Now I thank God, I didn’t let them skip me up. I would have had a high school diploma, [but] would have never known how to … use my commas, put in periods, capitalize words,” she said.
The tutors at the literacy center work with Burns one-on-one and are patient when she doesn’t understand something. “That’s what I wish I would have had in high school,” she said.
“An IEP doesn’t mean that you’re slow, it just means you have a hard time learning things,” she added, referring to an Individualized Education Program, a set of documents, services and supports given to all students in special education.
So far, Burns has passed the language arts portion of the equivalency exam and is hoping to go into real estate when she finishes the other sections.
Chip Sudderth, chief communications officer at Durham Public Schools, confirmed in an email that Burns was a student in the system. Sudderth said that the majority of students receiving special education services are on track to receive a regular diploma and spend the bulk of their time in classrooms with their general education peers. The unique needs of each student are determined by a team of educators, the parents, and sometimes the student.
Meanwhile, in Washington, after learning how to make the system work for her son, Daisy Brown started looking for ways to help other children. Brown now sits on two committees, one put together by the District’s Department of Disability Services and another run by the D.C. Medicare program from which Tyrone used to receive outside services and evaluations. Both committees aim to help Washington children navigate the special education system. As part of that work Brown runs workshops for parents on how to advocate for their children.
“It’s not just about helping that child, it’s helping that family be able to help that child. Parents must learn how to get the help that they need,” said Brown. “As a parent, you have to break down the bricks that they put in front of you. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Parents who are aware of their rights can help close the gaps for their kids, Brown said. “The first time, a parent sits down at an IEP meeting and can talk about what these scores mean and what concerns them, their [officials’] mouths drop. They see this is not a parent who I can pull the wool over their eyes. I’ve seen so many doors opened for parents,” Brown said.
Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology at the Graduate Center at City University of New York, said the problem is much deeper than an information gap. Racism and a lack of cultural competency often pervade meetings between school officials and parents and make it difficult for black and brown families to get what they need for their children, she said.
“Often people blame families for not being more involved, but schools are more likely to listen to white and upper-class parents,” said Fine. “Privileged parents are listened to. When poor parents and parents of color fight for their children, they are seen as aggressive … They are treated as if they don’t know what they are talking about.”
Reporting was contributed by Sarah Butrymowicz and Isaac Carey.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with HuffPost. Read the whole series, “Willing, able and forgotten: How high schools fail special ed students,” here. Sign up for our newsletter.