The problem begins with classification as minority students are often inappropriately labeled as disabled. In 29 states Black students are more than twice as likely as White students to be labeled with an emotional and behavioral disorder, and in 39 states Black students are more than twice as likely to be labeled mentally retarded.
Once labeled as disabled, minority students are much less likely than White children to receive special education services as mainstreamed students in a regular classroom. This separate but often unequal treatment has serious consequences: over half of Black students identified as having emotional and behavioral disorders drop out of school. Three-quarters of Black students with disabilities are not employed two years out of school compared to 47 percent of White students with disabilities.
And 40 percent of Black youths with disabilities are arrested after leaving high school compared to 27 percent of comparable White youths.
Parents, educators, child advocates and politicians must pay more attention to the problem of unfair treatment of Black and Latino children with disabilities and insist they get more of the positive services proven to work for all children with special needs. But the latest special education reforms Congress is considering include changes in discipline policies that would undo key protections for children with disabilities and give schools much more power to discipline and remove students without considering whether their inappropriate behavior results from a disability.
Discipline is an area when unfair treatment of children of color with disabilities is especially rampant. These new policies could lead to even more unfair and inappropriate treatment.
Black and Latino children with disabilities are already more likely to be suspended and expelled and suffer harsher consequences for behavioral problems than similar White children. During the 1999-2000 school year, Black students with disabilities were more than three times as likely as Whites to be given short-term suspensions and nearly three times more likely than White students to be suspended for more than ten days.
When removed from the classroom, disabled Black and Latino youths were between two and four times more likely than White youths to be educated in correctional facilities. For these minority children, the threat of being removed from the classroom doesn't just mean an extra day or two at home - but serious consequences that increase the likelihood of ending up in jail.
Research shows a majority of principals don't believe the dramatic changes to student discipline policy Congress is proposing are necessary. Allowing schools to suspend students with disabilities for any "code of student conduct" violation is especially unfair because many schools are not giving students needed supports to address the causes of their behavior: Forty states are out of compliance with federal requirements to provide free and appropriate public education to children with disabilities. Only one in five students with mental health problems receives any treatment.
Nearly three-quarters of states are already out of compliance with federal requirements meant to ensure children with disabilities are educated in mainstream classrooms to the greatest extent possible. These realities make the provisions in the new bill allowing schools to unilaterally remove students with disabilities from the classroom of deep concern.
Because Black and Latino children are disproportionately affected by all special education policies, Black and Latino parents and adults have a special responsibility to be aware of what our leaders are proposing and speak up to protect all our children's right to a quality education.
Integrating students with disabilities into mainstream classrooms, offering them high academic standards and curriculum, and providing high quality, positive behavioral interventions have been shown to improve all students' behavior and achievement.
Effective services can prevent higher rates of school failure, incarceration, and substance abuse for disabled children.
Suspension, expulsion, and segregation of students with behavioral problems and disabilities leads to negative outcomes-including the increased chance of going to jail later on. It is unfair that Black and brown students who start life with odds against them face a higher risk when they have special problems.
It's time to focus less on punishing children with disabilities and more on how we can provide all of them with solutions that work. Otherwise, President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education promises will simply leave more of the most vulnerable children behind.
Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund, whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind® and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
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