Minorities Overrepresented in Special Education Classes; Programs Implemented for At-Risk Students Will Help Disproportionality

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Stark racial and ethnic disparities in special education are persisting in public schools, according to a recent analysis.

Like FCAT scores and other annual assessments, the state and district profiles compiled by the Florida Department of Education are released every spring. But there's no news release.

The reports show black students are twice as likely to be funneled into the state's mentally handicapped and emotionally/behaviorally disabled categories of exceptional student education.

Florida ranks among the worst in the nation for over-representation in those categories, according to statistics from the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems, funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Northeast Florida districts vary. In Clay County, minorities are less likely to be overrepresented because of an early intervention program. That means exceptional education classrooms are more likely to look like the mostly white district. In St. Johns, the disproportionality is acute enough to make a state watch list. Duval mostly mirrors state averages.

Gifted education, while not classified as a disability, also reveals inequities. This year's figures show just 14 percent of gifted students are black -- even though they make up nearly half the student population in Jacksonville. White students, on the other hand, were three times as likely as all other students to be labeled as gifted in Duval County schools.

When it comes to disabilities that are medically diagnosed -- such as visual and orthopedic impairments -- the racial and ethnic balance mostly reflects the population as a whole, state data show.

Why the disparities exist is extremely complex, said Janette Klingner, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and leader at the center who has extensively published documents on the issue. Reasons range from poor instruction to cultural misunderstandings, even subconscious prejudice.

Classroom research shows that school personnel have wide latitude to determine whether children should be labeled with some disabilities, she said. Children can be viewed as normal in one teacher's classroom but mentally or behaviorally deficient in another.

Addressing the issue was deemed a summer priority by Duval County school officials.

Early intervention services -- such as small group tutoring sessions or one-on-one counseling -- for children in need may be one way. Or at least that's the way the federal government promised to crack down on districts with major disparities in how students are labeled with a disability, sending states a warning letter in 2007. Those districts must divert 15 percent of federal funds to early intervention.

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