Differential Treatment of African American Males Referred for Special Education Services

William Drakeford
Assistant Professor Early Childhood/Special Education
Department of Teaching, Learning, & Professional Development
Bowie State University
Bowie, Maryland

Mercedes E. Ebanks
Assistant Professor
Program Coordinator
School Psychology & Counseling Services
Howard University
School of Education
Washington, DC


This review of literature examined some of the factors which have contributed to the African American males‘ referral and treatment in Special Education services. Despite measures by the U.S. Department of Education to address the disproportionate number of African American males to special education in comparison to their counterparts, overrepresentation continues to be a problem due to procedures and practices which do not consider cultural and linguistic awareness. National, state, and local education policies should promote the education for all students and implement programs to insure that educators are: properly trained on using appropriate assessment tools; mindful of the referral system; competent in early intervention; and utilizing effective instructional methods which contribute to the reduction of inappropriate over- identification of African American males in the Special Education programs.

Keywords: Special Education, over-representation, African American males, referral process


American society is characterized by various detrimental outcomes of complex social forces, which are biased against African American males in schools and society, and this explains their frequent placement in Special Education programs (Townsend-Walker, 2000). Numerous studies have been conducted to investigate the treatment of African American males who are referred to Special Education programs. Since 1967, a substantial amount of research has indicated a disproportionate referral and assignment rate of African American males to Special Education programs for the handicapped and mentally disturbed (Berkowitz & Rothman, 1967; Dunn, 1968; Mackler, 1967). Various measures have been adopted to address and streamline this issue (Bailey & Habin, 1980; Oakland, 1977). However, the disproportionate assignment of African American males to Special Education programs continues despite these measures (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). Furthermore, there is a continued disproportionate incidence of African American male students who are subjected to school discipline, suspension, and subsequent expulsion.

The Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EHA) mandated Special Education in 1975 (Harry & Anderson, 1994). In 1990 EHA was renamed to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and in 2004 it was modified to Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA). EHA aimed to provide specialized treatment services to students, who, by virtue of their disabilities, could not benefit from the regular education system and curriculum. EHA was intended to control and extend to all children, irrespective of their disabilities, the provision of Special Education services, which were available in various parts of the nation (Harry & Anderson, 1994). Conversely, during its enactment into law, there were various signs that this umbrella construct was being misused. This was evidenced by EHA‘s requirement that the assessment for education should not be biased and should be undertaken by a multidisciplinary team. However, numerous challenges have curtailed the implementation of this requirement, thus notwithstanding the widespread concern.

Racial, gender, cultural, and linguistic biases have remained an integral aspect of the Special Education processes, seemingly more so for African American males. Failure to resolve these early academic inequities, especially among children from low-income families and ethnic minorities, can adversely affect children‘s academic trajectories, limiting their opportunities thereafter (American Educational Research Association, 2005; Entwisele & Alexander, 1993; Entwisle, Alexander, Cadigan, & Pallas, 1987; Joe & Davis, 2009). This paper will aim to establish that the entire referral process for Special Education services is biased against African American male students. These biases are present in their first treatment in the regular education system through the disproportionate referral process, assessment method, and placement procedures in Special Education programs. This paper will commence with a short summary of the problem and its causes and will conclude with recommendations for how this disproportionate treatment can be dismantled by all schools.

Explanation of the Issue

Disproportionality is considered one of the most complex factors in the Special Education field (Skiba, Simmons, Ritter, Kohler, Henderson, & Wu, 2003). Disproportionality has been defined as the over-representation and under-representation of a certain group or demographic populations in the special or the gifted education programs relative to the representation of the group in the entire student population (National Association for Bilingual Education, 2002). The disproportionate placement of students from a certain group in Special Education programs implies that the group has a higher representation in these programs than their entire school population. The issue that arises is the relativity of placement. In assessing the disproportionate numbers, it is critical to determine the percentage of a given group in the entire population, and then compare it with the percentage of the group‘s representation in Special Education programs. It entails 10 percent, plus or minus, of the anticipated percentage based on the school-age population (National Association for Bilingual Education, 2002). For instance, assuming that the African American population accounts for 16 percent of students enrolled in U.S. schools (United States Department of Education, 2006), it should be expected that the Special Education enrollment is within (+/-) 1.6 percent of the total enrollment. Therefore, any Special Education enrollment that falls outside this range (from 14.4 to 17.6 percent) should be regarded as disproportionate. The U.S. Department of Education (2006) estimates that 13.5 percent of the total K-12 student population is placed in the Special Education programs. Furthermore, certain subgroups, and students from linguistically and culturally diverse populations in particular, are referred to Special Education programs at rates that are higher than 13.5 percent. African American males unfairly face this disproportion. They are more likely to be referred to Special Education programs than their white counterparts.

This disproportion arises when educators employ their conscious or unconscious racist or ethnocentric stereotyped beliefs about African American males when interpreting the “street corner language ” and behavior of these students (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Foster, 1986, 1990). Townsend-Walker (2000) suggested that verbal and nonverbal language differences between teachers and students may create additional opportunities for cultural conflicts and misinterpretation. She concluded that when African American students speak “nonstandard ” English, school personnel who are unfamiliar with the dialect may misunderstand the speakers‘ intended meaning or tone. This misunderstanding marks the first step toward disproportionate treatment of African American males in Special Education programs, suspension, and discipline issues. Abrahams (1963) and Kochman (1972) were the first researchers to explain the street corner language and behavior to the public. Foster (1974; 1986) also offered a historical context and explained, described, and discussed the African American street corner language and behavior in relation to what African American males portrayed both in school and in class in his various works. Furthermore, Jackson (1974) and Percelay and Dweck (1994) enriched the literature on the street corner language and behavior, while Gates (1988) raised street corner language and behavior to a higher academic and scholarly understanding and acceptance. All of these researchers have made a tremendous contribution to the understanding of street corner language and behavior. They have also explained how this has contributed to the disproportionate treatment of African American males in Special Education programs.

Foster (1974; 1986) developed a model that categorized African American males in urban schools into four distinct categories. The street corner youngster is one of the four categories, and possibly three students in a class of 30 are likely to bring street corner language and behavior into the classroom. In most instances, African American males use their street corner language and behavior as survival tactics and coping techniques. These were critical to their survival on the street corner, yet problematic in school. Some survival and coping methods include ribbing‘, woofin‘, and playin‘ the dozens among other nonverbal kinesic behaviors which are verbal joking games. The most popular non-kinesic behavior was a walking style, which depending on the place and section where one lives, may be referred to as ditty boppin‘, pimp walkin‘, or cake walking. Ditty boppin‘ (often referred to as “walking in a disrespectful manner ” [Breinin, 1981])caused substantial problems for African American male students who adopted the walk in school. According to Foster (1974; 1986), the walk was regarded as a dirty walk and inappropriate, and many regular and Special Education instructors become infuriated when they the walk. These instructors could not articulate why they became infuriated, however. In instances where African American female students adopted ditty doppin‘, the teachers would become even more agitated. Students have even been suspended for ditty doppin‘. For example, in Buffalo, New York, African American male students were suspended for ditty doppin‘ A 17- year old was transferred to a differentiated program for severely emotionally disturbed students. The student‘s record did not indicate any acting-out, aggressive, or threatening behavior; however, it was noted that the student would walk in the school‘s hallways in a manner that was considered sexually offensive. (Foster 1986; 1990).

A white teacher who was raised in a low socioeconomic neighborhood would likely be culturally aware and understand ditty doppin‘; the teacher would most likely to jokingly tell the student that he is trespassing in his corner since he or she (the teacher) is the only one allowed to ditty dopp‘ there. Thus, the person evaluating the behavior brings his or her own personal experience with the behavior, forming the basis of interpretation. Therefore, the disproportionate referral of African American males to Special Education programs is highly dependent on personal biases. Considering the challenges in instituting a multidisciplinary team in the education assessment process, African American males are likely to endure this disproportionate treatment at the hands of administrators, school psychologists, and teachers, the majority of whom are white.

Is Disproportionate Treatment Really a Concern?

A majority of teachers in the United States are often faced with challenging situations regarding African American students. Out of the concern they have for their students, along with their determination to ensure that the students receive the help they need, these teachers resort to the only option available to them, which often translates into referring the students to Special Education programs. However, this causes a gender imbalance. Gender balance in the regular classrooms has not been given maximum attention by educational policies and legislations like the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Gender equity in the classroom is a very sensitive issue that has parents, educators, and guardians in a dilemma, perhaps making them resolve to blindness regarding inequality (Spring, 2009). There has been much concern surrounding the education of female children, but what happens to the boys? Little attention has been given to the system that has been used to evaluate African American males and to refer them to special schools. The bias in the classroom and the evaluation system are responsible for African American males, as 40% of the population are in Special Education facilities. This system of evaluation is what has led to a complete gender imbalance in regular classrooms and even in the Special Education setting. There is research evidence that Black males are more likely than other races to have false negative and false positive diagnoses due to cultural biased assessments, unique styles of expression, and environmental stressors (Toldson & Lewis, 2012).

A significant number of students are likely to benefit from Special Education program services; however, this may not be the most appropriate option for some students. Rather than offering the needed solutions to the students, experts warn that inappropriate Special Education referrals may have adverse effects on the students in the end (Harry & Klingner, 2006; Losen & Orfield, 2002; National Alliance of African American School Educators, 2002;). Furthermore, the premature initiation of the Special Education referral process adds to the disproportionality in Special Education. Labeling students as disabled while ignoring the source of the problem— which is often a lack of access to necessary services and support—is counterproductive. Additionally, it limits the opportunities for students who genuinely need the Special Education program services. Misidentified students are likely to suffer from limited access to the rigorous curriculum they critically need. Consequently, they suffer from diminished expectations (Fine, 1991). More importantly, improperly branding students creates a false impression on the students‘ intellect and educational potential. African American boys are the most likely to receive special education services and the least likely to be enrolled in honors classes (Toldson & Lewis, 2012). As a result, these student experience negative consequences, including the following:

  • Once students are enrolled in the Special Education programs, they tend to be confined in the Special Education classes (Harry & Klingner, 2006);
  • Students are more likely to be subjected to a less thorough education curriculum (Harry & Klingner, 2006);
  • Fewer academic expectations are placed on students attending Special Education programs, and this is likely to result in reduced academic and post-secondary prospects (National Research Council, 2002; Harry & Klingner, 2006);
  • Students with disabilities are often socially stigmatized by society (National Research Council, 2002);
  • Students confined in Special Education programs have less access to their academically- able peers (Donovan & Cross, 2002);
  • The referral process to Special Education programs is highly disproportional, and this likely contributes to significant racial segregation (Harry & Klingner, 2006; Losen & Orfield, 2002); and
  • Students with disabilities are more likely to (1) repeat a grade, (2) be suspended or expelled from school, (3) have the school contact the parent about problem behavior, and/or (4) have the school contact the parent about poor performance (Toldson & Lewis, 2012).

Dunn (1968) studied trends that led to the increased number of African American males in alternative schools with self contained classrooms for special need students with behavior and academic problems. . Across Black, White, and Hispanic males and females, nearly seven percent are receiving special education services, and 10 % have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). For Black boys in particular, 9% are receiving special education services, and 15% have an IEP (Toldson & Lewis, 2012). Branding a student as requiring Special Education implies that the child suffers from a disorder, and consequently, the child is in need of specialized education and other therapeutic interventions. Ideally, it is anticipated that Special Education will improve the student‘s academic performance; however, positive outcomes of Special Education have been seriously questioned in many students (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Dunn, 1968). In reality, African American males outnumber others in Special Education programs, second only to jail.

Disabilities can be classified into low-incidence and high-incidence cases. Low- incidences include autism, severe sensory impairments, and moderate to profound mental retardation. High-incidences include emotionally disturbed students, learning disabilities, language and speech disorders, and mild mental retardation. According to Harry and Klinger (2006), high-incidence disabilities are diagnosed in a subjective manner with close adherence to biological factors like inheritance. On the contrary, low-incidence disabilities are diagnosed based on medical assessment.

Furthermore, disability diagnosis is likely to lead to lowered teacher expectations. Therefore, Special Education is typically viewed to a place to which where non-performing students are referred (Meyer & Patton, 2001) as opposed to a place where learners can improve their educational performance. Consequently, disproportionate treatment has numerous implications. A disproportionate Special Education process, especially one skewed against African American male students, certainly implies that these students are poor academic performers. This may not be the case in reality, however. Thus, these students may perform poorly in actuality as a result. This is an unwelcome outcome, and surely this is a policy issue that needs to be corrected.

The Prevalence of Disproportionality against African Americans

Students of color—Africans, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans in particular—have a higher incidence rate in the Special Education identification, as opposed to their European American counterparts (Valenzuela, Copeland, Qi & Park, 2006). The Special Education identification rates, which are determined based on racial and ethnic groups indicate 5% are Asians and Pacific Islanders, 11%, Hispanics, 12%, Whites, 13%, American Indians, and 14% are African Americans (Donovan & Cross, 2002). African Americans have a significant representation in all disability areas, and the disproportionality is more prominent in the higher- incidence areas (Harry & Klingner, 2006).

Mental retardation is one area that has the largest over-representation. African American males make up 16% of the entire student population. However, they make up 33% of the students who are assigned to the mentally retarded special programs (Donovan & Cross, 2002). This implies that nearly three percent of the African American students are diagnosed and referred to the institutions meant for the mentally retarded, as opposed to one percent of the European American students. The statistics reveal that African American students are twice as likely as European American students to be branded mentally retarded.

These are national statistics, and they vary according to geographical regions. For instance, in Virginia, African Americans comprise 20% of the student population. However, they make up 28% of the students in Special Education programs and 51% of the students in Mild Mental Retardation (MMR) programs (Ladner & Hammons, 2001). Furthermore Oswald, Coutinho, Best, and Singh (1999), along with Valenzuela et al. (2006), observe that African American populations in Special Education programs may be greater in districts that have smaller African American populations or in the more affluent districts.

The above findings underscore the subjectivity that characterizes the process of identifying students with mild disability. The diagnosis of students with mild disabilities is certainly challenging enough; however, the processes are complicated further by the entry of multifaceted issues of culture and quality schooling (Harry & Klingner, 2006). The authors argued that the process of determining a student‘s eligibility for a special program is a science. However, they state that social forces are responsible for branding the students as “disabled ” who the regular education system finds too hard to serve.

Males are more likely than females to be referred for Special Education programs (Coutinho & Oswald, 2005; Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 2001). Furthermore, African American males comprise the most vulnerable population. They are as twice likely to be regarded as mentally retarded in 38 states, to have educational disabilities in 29 states, and to have learning disabilities in 8 states (Ferri & Connor, 2005). Various factors explain the disproportionate representation of African American male students in Special Education, the first of which is biological. Males are more prone to biological defects such as birth defects that are likely to result in disabilities. Males are also more likely to be accused of engaging in behaviors that are considered to be more disruptive in the classroom. Lastly, referring teachers may place unrealistic expectations on the male students (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 2001).

Females are less likely to portray externalizing behavior problems, such as disruptions, and educators are less likely to identify and address female students‘ widespread internalizing problems, such as depressive sysmptoms. Thus, the under-identification of female students remains relatively high. This does not rule out the significant risk facing African American male students, however. They are the foremost candidates for Special Education. Furthermore, compared to their European male counterparts, they are more likely to be suspended from school at a younger age, to receive longer suspensions, to be sent to low-ability classes, to be retained in a grade level for more than one year, to be sentenced to boot camps and correctional facilities, and to become branded more pathological labels that are warranted (Coutinho, Oswald, & Forness, 2002; Irvine, 1990; Oakes, 1994).

School suspension, as opposed to other factors, has been more consistently linked to Special Education disproportionality; African American male students stand greater chances of getting maximum disciplinary measures (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002; Skiba, Poloni-Staudinger, Simmons, Feggins-Azzis, & Chung, 2005). Lo and Cartledge (2007) revealed that African American male students, as opposed to the African American female and European male and female students, are more prone to disciplinary risk. Moreover, the study revealed that the disciplinary referrals for students with the greatest risk aggravated; the students did not portray the anticipated improvements; rather, their social behaviors worsened. The findings suggest that the excessively punitive processes aggravate the problem behaviors and increase the risk that African American students will be expelled from school and referred to Special Education programs. School personnel can begin addressing the differential use of exclusionary discipline with African American learners by examining their suspension and expulsion data to ensure that differential discipline is not applied to any group of students based on their ethnicity, gender, ability, socioeconomic status, or any intersection of those variables (Townsend-Walker, 2000).

Treatment of African American Males at the Special Education Facilities and Programs

It is important to note that the biased system of education is quite recurrent in America, especially for African American males. In the facilities or programs, these students tend to get the most restrictive placement. In terms of IDEA, a student who has been referred for Special Education programs should be placed in the least restrictive environment. A non-restrictive environment is made up of three apparatuses. The first is that students who have been diagnosed as having disabilities should be placed in the most appropriate manner with students who are not disabled and educated together. Secondly, special classes for children with severe disabilities are only allowed if that child cannot be helped with supplementary services and aids. The last mechanism is that in the most appropriate manner possible, a child with disabilities should be put in extracurricular activities jointly with those who do not have disabilities. On the contrary, the above mechanisms are overlooked when a real situation in a special school is examined. The African American male is placed in a separate class and regarded as having a severe disability.

In these socially divided settings, African American males have trouble accessing the general education atmosphere and the curriculum (Valenzuela et al., 2006). A study conducted by Fierros and Conroy in 1998 showed that almost 50 percent of African American male students placed in the Special Education programs were taught in separate self-contained classrooms, while less than a third were put in an all-inclusive classroom setting. This implies that, in either the general or the special program, the African American male is slowly being targeted and eliminated from the school system.

In the context of race and culture, the American curriculum emphasizes that the White race is superior. In society, the color black has a negative connotation. This biased curriculum does not look into the psychological discomfort that this may cause for African American males. If males who are painted as black or bad refuse to agree with the term, they are as aggression and referred to a special program. This curriculum teaches students to be what they can never be instead of embracing what they really are. In fact, it is hard for the African American male to embrace a system that dismisses his identity (Razack, 1998). Those who are unable to achieve an improvement in their academic performance are immediately sent to special programs or juvenile centers. While other students have opportunities to participate in general education and accelerated learning programming, students with histories of school exclusion may be subjected to lower track or remedial programming (Townsend-Walker, 2000). Therefore, if such programs are not effective, Townsend-Walker (2000) concluded those students may continue to receive poor academic grades and be retained more frequently than other students.

African American males in alternative schools often received inappropriate services. For instance, counseling, career choices, and motivation are often lacking (Moore, Henfield, & Owens, 2011). In terms of discipline, they are likely to receive harsher penalties than other races. The males may also believe that counseling cannot help them because they are not understood. More often than not, the instructors at those schools refer them easily to the Juvenile Justice System. IDEA gives one loophole that instructors at special schools have exploited to the maximum. According to IDEA, a least restrictive environment is not general but rather determined on a case basis. Therefore, teachers may refer students to the juvenile system based on how they consider behaviors to be disruptive. Such disproportionality in education makes this a civil rights issue.

Teachers‘ Perceptions toward the African American Male

La Vonne, Audrey, Gwendolyn and Bridgest (2003) aimed to establish the perceptions that teachers have about African American males. About 140 middle school teachers filled out a questionnaire as they viewed a videotape. The results were analyzed, and it was revealed that the perceptions the teachers had toward African American males accounted for the differential treatment in the classroom situation and the decision to send them for specialized education. Toldson (2008) examined student-teacher relationships and revealed that African-American males agreed with statements that displayed the linear patterns that reflected a positive relationship with teachers and achievement in order of significance therefore the findings suggest that teachers are most effective within they have a personal connection to their students.

African Americans have been subjected to more than three centuries of racial discrimination. They realized that White society could and would never accept them, and therefore, they needed to establish a cultural identity (San Juan, 2002). In the context of culture, cultural identity is what injects meaning and security to the life of those who are perceived in the society as inferior or minor. San Juan (2002) argued that minority groups are often treated as powerless and less deserving; therefore, they tend to derive their power from their cultural identities instead of from society or school. Culture is like a mirror through which we view others and ourselves (Razack, 1998). Teachers often misunderstand culturally conditioned behaviors of children and are very unresponsive to their culture. This is the result of psychological discomfort and poor achievements by African American males (Connolly, 1998). African American boys may be particularly at risk for the deleterious impact of experiencing racial discrimination on academic outcomes (Neblett, Chavous, Nguyen, & Sellers, 2009). Studies that have focused specifically on African American youth experiences of racial discrimination within the classroom have found that such discriminatory experiences were negatively associated with both the valuing of doing well in school as well as academic performance (Chavous, et al., 2008; Neblett et al., 2009; Wong, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2003). Townsend-Walker (2012) stated that in order to understand and respond to the complex issues associated with African American males dropping out of school and entering juvenile justice systems, educators must deliberately critique and alter their practices by raising consciousness of their perspectives relative to that of others.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Over-representation of African American males in Special Education programs has stirred national concerns for five decades. Since the commencement of sampling of school districts by the United States Office of Civil Rights in 1968, African American students, and male students in particular, have been over-represented in Special Education programs, particularly in the mental and emotional disturbance categories (Artiles, Trent, & Palmer, 2004; Gamm, 2007). Numerous policies, procedures, and practices initiated at the national, state, district, school, and class levels have led to over-representation of culturally and linguistically diverse student populations in the Special Education programs and under-representation in the gifted and talented programs. To promote the education and success of all students, educators need to know how exactly they can contribute to the reduction of inappropriate identification in the Special Education programs and improve the opportunities to the culturally and linguistically diverse students to enhance their gifts and talents.

Efforts that are targeted at the anticipation of the problem and early intervention are the most effective and productive. For instance, effective instructional and behavior interventions that eliminate the need for Special Education referrals are highly effective in saving the African American student. The focus needs to be on the educators who are opposed to the acquisition of cultural, instructional, and management competencies for teachers. This is critical to correct the situation. Black males with and without disabilities can excel in schools that have adequate opportunities for diverse learners and a structure that supports personal and emotional growth and development (Toldson & Lewis, 2012). Furthermore, educators must create a curriculum that embraces the dimensions of the African American culture (Banks, 2006). This curriculum should be set in the context of communalism, oral tradition, harmony, spirituality, affect, dynamism, open individualism, and social perspective interactions (Kumashiro, 2001). Special Education teachers should be trained on how to be culturally responsive to African American males and other minority students in schools.

Lastly, all individual assessments should be undertaken in a culturally responsive and unbiased manner. This can be achieved through the following various means.

  1. Allowing more time: Enough time should be provided for the assessment of students of diverse backgrounds. This is critical in gathering critical background information, which will enable the implementation of alternative and flexible alternatives.
  2. Gathering sufficient background information: This is critical in developing the evaluation context. A review of all the available background information, such as school attendance, household variations and movement, family structure, education, medical, and family history should be evaluated.
  3. Addressing the function of language: Educationalists and the multidisciplinary teams should undertake dual language assessments during the evaluation process. This entails determining student‘s language history, dominance, and preference.
  4. Utilizing nonverbal and alternative assessment approaches: In the assessment of students with a background that has a variety of cultures and languages, standardized nonverbal cognitive and translated tests should be used. Additional assessment techniques such as curriculum based assessments, test-teach-test approaches, and in-direct data sources, such as parent and teacher reports and informal observations and interviews, are critical in completing an accurate assessment.
  5. Recognizing processes which differ from those in mainstream culture: The multidisciplinary assessment team should record in its report that the information was gathered through interpreters, the testing procedures used, and the reasons for their use.


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