How to actively address educational equity for Black students with disabilities

Identifying children for special education and related services can lean too heavily on subjectivity, one advocate says
By: | February 11, 2021

As students return to in-person instruction, educational equity may be top of mind for schools that already experienced educational disparities in the days following the initial COVID-19 pandemic response.

Low-income minorities and students with disabilities were among the most vulnerable, lacking reliable access to the internet and other supports.

But as districts answer those challenges, they should also work proactively to ward off more subtle systemic inequities, said Jen Neitzel, executive director of the nonprofit Educational Equity Institute in Charlotte, N.C.

“For Black children, it’s generally related to overidentification for special ed and under identification for gifted programs,” said Neitzel.

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The process for identifying children for special education and related services can lean too heavily on subjectivity, Neitzel says.

She warns that identification based primarily on teacher referrals can be biased and can harm students perceived to have a disability rather than, for example, a reaction to trauma or response to adverse childhood experiences.

“When Black children are placed in special education, they are placed in subjective categories such as learning disabilities or having behavior issues,” said Neitzel. “We punish these children with systemic racism, and we don’t change the system. We’re punishing children for their trauma.”

Childhood trauma comes in many forms that may not be readily identified and addressed, according to Educational Equity Institute President Ebonyse Mead.

“Chronic poverty and generational poverty, for example, that is trauma,” said Mead. “When children are exposed to violence — whether it is domestic violence or community violence — it is all traumatic.”

Mead said she believes districts should commit to students’ social-emotional development ahead of making determinations of eligibility for special education and related services.

To facilitate and foster educational equity in their schools, she and Neitzel suggested that administrators consider:

  • Reviewing and revising policies such as discipline codes that cause harm.
  • Promoting the use of culturally responsive antibias practices in the classroom.
  • Promoting parent engagement and encouraging parents to advocate for educational equity.
  • Building sustaining relationships with leaders serving the district, local child care agencies, and other community groups.

“Relationships are key to this work,” said Neitzel. “It’s really important to have buy-in. It takes courage on the part of leaders. It’s brave work.”

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Mead said she views equity in education as a long-term commitment to change school culture and expectations in ways that singular initiatives cannot address.

She said promoting equity requires that school leaders and parents alike deep dive into discussions about systemic causes for disparities in race and disability and work to remediate them.

“I think the strategy is to do away with wanting to have a strategy,” said Mead. “Educational equity requires a deep dive.”

Johnny Jackson covers special education issues for LRP Publications.