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Racial and Ethnic Disproportionality and the School Social Worker’s Role By: Dr. Kari Smith

What is Disproportionality?

Disproportionate representation refers to the over- or under-representation of a particular ethnic group receiving special education services in relation to the total population of that specific group (Zhang and Katsiyannis, 2002; National Education Association, 2008). Overrepresentation occurs when the percentage of a particular ethnic group receiving special education services exceeds the total percentage of the minority group of concern within the school population (Zhang & Katsiyannis, 2002; National Education Association, 2008). The disproportionate representation of African American males labeled as having emotional disabilities and in exclusionary school practices (i.e., suspension and expulsion) has received much attention within recent years (Bal, Betters-Bubon & Fish, 2019; Bottiani, Bradshaw & Mendelson, 2016; Carter, Skiba, Arredondo & Pollock, 2017; Green, Cohen & Stormont, 2018; Skiba et al., 2011; Sprague, 2018). In fact, in an attempt to ensure that all students receive a free, appropriate public education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) of 2004 requires states to determine whether or not disproportionality in identification practices and placement is occurring within the state (Bollmer, Bethel, Garrison-Mogren, & Brauen, 2007). Since disproportionality must be investigated by law, this further brings the issue into the forefront.

Disproportionality: An Ongoing Issue

It must be noted; however, that the issue of disproportionality is not a new one. In fact, Dunn brought the issue to light as early as 1968 specifically in relation to students classified as intellectually disabled. This seminal article asked the question whether special education was appropriate for the students it claimed to serve. Dunn noticed that many students receiving special education services were those from impoverished and culturally diverse backgrounds. He further questioned whether or not the services being delivered were appropriate and beneficial to the students (Dunn, 1968).

Many concerns remain today in regards to the overrepresentation of African American male students identified as needing special education services, particularly those receiving services under those categories which are considered to be subjective, and in exclusionary disciplinary practices for mainly subjective reasons (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002; Skiba, Poloni-Staudinger, Simmons, Feggins-Azzziz, & Chung, 2005; Skiba, Poloni-Staudinger, Gallini, Simmons, & Feggins-Azziz, 2006). The categories most examined in the research are the high incidence categories of intellectual disability (ID) and emotional disability (ED). Data collected from 49 States, Washington, DC, and the Bureau of Indian Education Schools demonstrates that in 2016, American Indian or Alaska Native, Black or African American, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander students ages 6 through 21 had risk ratios above 1, meaning that the students in each group were more likely to receive special education services than all other racial/ethnic groups combined (U. S. Department of Education, 2018).

There are many reasons why the disproportionate representation of African American students identified as ED and ID are concerning. First, the number of African American students receiving special education services is disproportionate to the total population of African American students in many schools and states (U. S. Department of Education, 2018). Second, there remains questions as to the long-term benefits of special education services, particularly for students identified with emotional disabilities (Bal et al., 2019; Dunn, 1968; MacMillan & Reschly, 1998; Patton, 1998). Third, there remains a stigma with classifying students as in need of special education services and in removing students from the general education environment (Bal et al., 2019; MacMillan & Reschly, 1998; Skiba et al., 2006). Fourth, the way in which disproportionality data is collected and computed varies among districts and states making it near impossible to compare disproportionality data (Bollmer et al., 2007). Fifth, at times, the process of eligibility for special education services may not be conducive to parental input (Harry, Klingner, & Hart, 2005). Sixth, the assessment of students with emotional or behavioral disabilities is an issue in that scales used to formally assess concerning behaviors are typically not normed using culturally diverse samples (Coutinho, Oswald, and Best, 2002).

With regard to exclusionary discipline practices, Skiba and colleagues (2002) found that students of color were found to be suspended at rates two to three times higher than other students. Skiba and colleagues (2011) also found that African American students have twice the odds of receiving office discipline referrals (ODRs) when compared to White students in a national sample at the elementary level and four times the odds at the middle school level. LatinX students were found to be overrepresented at the middle school level in ODRs but underrepresented at the elementary level in this same study (Skiba et al., 2011). Losen and Gillespie (2012) found that nationally, one of every six African American students, one of 12 Native American students, and one of 14 LatinX students were suspended at least once.

Why is it that students of color are identified as having certain disabilities, are placed in more restrictive environments, and are excluded from school at rates higher than their White counterparts? Proposed hypotheses for disproportionality are also complex. Researchers have proposed that disproportionality can be linked to cultural mismatch in the teaching force (i.e., the majority of the teaching force being White, middle class women), low socioeconomic status as a risk factor for African American students to be disproportionally suspended from school, and higher rates of disruption of students of color based on displaying behavioral styles discrepant from mainstream expectations that puts students of color at risk for office discipline referrals (Skiba et al., 2011). It should be noted that there is no evidence to support the latter hypothesis (Skiba et al., 2011).

While it is important to maintain a safe school environment, we must do so without denying students the opportunity to fully participate in the academic environment. Removing students, particularly students of color, from the academic environment can weaken their connection to school and decreases their ability to participate in learning opportunities, thus becoming an issue of equity and civil rights (Carter et al., 2017; Skiba et al., 2011; Sprague, 2018). With so much focus of late on equitable practices, school social workers who have a strong understanding of systems and change, are poised to lead the charge to addressing disproportionate practices in their schools and districts.

Addressing Disproportionality at All Levels

Researchers have offered the following ways to address disproportionality at the individual, school, district, and State levels:

· Use of a comprehensive process to refer, identify, and determine eligibility for special education services for all students, particularly students of color (Bal et al., 2019)

· Culturally responsive training and behavioral support training for all staff, including teachers and administrators, within the building (Bal et al., 2019; Green et al., 2018)

· Identifying the risk factors within one’s own building and District that contribute to exclusionary practices and work to change them (Bal et al., 2019)

· Use of culturally relevant interventions, rather than a disciplinary system focused on punishment (Sprague, 2018)

· Use of functional behavioral assessments that focus on the ABCs (i.e., antecedent, behaviors, & consequences) that may result in exclusionary discipline practices (Sprague, 2018)

· Review and disseminate data to identify areas of strength, areas of growth and to create evidence-based action plans to address disproportionality and to create schools that meet the needs of all students (Bal et al., 2019; Carter et al., 2017; Green et al., 2018)

· Use of federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funds for coordinated early intervening services (CEIS) (Green et al., 2018)

· Establishing an equity team that has an explicit commitment to equity for all students and is reflective of the diverse school community (Green et al., 2018)

· Review, change or develop policies and procedures to combat disproportionality (Green et al., 2018)

The School Social Worker’s Role

School social workers can:

· Work to develop positive school climates for all stakeholders

· Model behavior that challenges the status quo and exclusionary practices

· Acknowledge that engaging in such conversations, while uncomfortable, are necessary

· Develop supportive relationships with all stakeholders, particularly, students and their families

Adapted from Carter et al., 2019

Disproportionality is viewed as a complex, systemic issue that can only be eliminated by complex, intentional strategies that involve all stakeholders, and school social workers, given their knowledge and training should be the guiding force in this work (Bal et al., 2019).


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