Communication Codes among African American Children and Youth - the Fast Track from Special Education to Prison?

By Sherwin, Gary H.; Schmidt, Stacy | Journal of Correctional Education, June 2003 | Go to article overview
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Communication Codes among African American Children and Youth - the Fast Track from Special Education to Prison?


Sherwin, Gary H., Schmidt, Stacy, Journal of Correctional Education


Abstract

Youth and adults with disabilities are over-represented in most private and public correctional facilities across the country. In turn, a disproportionate number of African American males are placed in special education. It is possible that some at-risk students are over-identified for special education services due to ethnic variations in culturally endorsed communication codes because the function and meanings of these codes in discrete contexts are not fully understood by the personnel contributing to special education eligibility decisions. This research examines culturally intact communication codes that could lead to over-identification of African American males in special education and, ultimately, correctional facilities.

Introduction

Statistics from American Psychological Association (APA, 1993) show that violence involving children and youth has undergone dramatic growth within the past 15 years. Rates of hospital admissions for penetrating trauma such as knife wounds increased 1,740% between 1986 and 1989 at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC. Homicide is the most frequent cause of death for adolescent African American males and females while firearms are involved in more than 75% of adolescent killings. Aggressiveness is the primary contributing factor in identifying students for special services, especially as emotionally disturbed (ED) (Fox, Conroy, & Heckaman, 1998).

A growing body of research supports the overidentification of persons with special needs in correctional facilities, as well as the over-identification of African American males in special education and for adjudication. For example, the arrest rate for African Americans with disabilities is 40% compared to 27% for whites (Losen & Orfield, 2002). The percentage of adolescents in correctional facilities with disabilities is from 30% to 70% depending upon the State, while students with special needs represent less than 11% of the school population (Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1985). Finally, African American students represent 25% of secondary students identified for services as ED although African American students are only 16% of the student population (based on data from OSEP National Longitudinal Transition Study).

Although aggressive acts are among the most difficult problems encountered by educational practitioners, little is known about ethnic variations in aggressiveness or the function of context-specific aggression. It is possible that some at-risk students are over-identified for special education services because ethnic variations in culturally endorsed aggression and the function and meanings of aggressive acts in discrete contexts are not fully understood.

This naturalistic research was conducted at two boys' and girls' clubs to examine ethnic group variations in aggressiveness. Findings indicate that the participants employ aggressive actions to communicate in operations such as bonding. It is expected that this research will be used to improve culturally sensitive identification procedures when aggressiveness is used in a diagnosis of emotional disturbance and expand our conceptualization of aggressiveness to include some apparent aggression as a dynamic form of communication in discrete contexts. This may then help break the cycle of over-identification for special education services and in turn amend in part the disproportionate number of students with disabilities in correctional institutions.

Aggressiveness In Schools

Aggressive acts of children are among the most difficult problems encountered by educational practitioners and constitute the primary impetus for referral to services in special education and community services (Etscheidt, 1991; Forness, Kavale & Lopez, 1991; Fox, Conroy, & Heckaman, 1998; Grosenick, 1991; Knapczyk, 1992). However, aggression with communicative intent is rarely researched (Artiles, A.

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