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Harvard Studies Find Inappropriate Special Education Placements Continue to Segregate and Limit Educational Opportunities for Minority Students Nationwide

New Studies Indicate that Minority Students Are Significantly More Likely to be Labeled "Mentally Retarded," Far Less Likely to be Mainstreamed than White Students

EDITOR'S NOTE: Visit the Civil Rights Project website for the state-by-state breakdown of researchers' findings.

WASHINGTON--Despite an increase in civil rights protections and special education services over the past 25 years, school districts nationwide continue to improperly and disproportionately place minority students in special education classes, according to a series of new national studies released today by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

The studies found that grossly disproportionate numbers of minority students are identified as eligible for services, and too often placed in isolated and restrictive educational settings. When compared with their white counterparts, African-American children (in data from 1997) were almost three times more likely to be labeled "mentally retarded," according to a paper by Thomas B. Parrish, managing research scientist at the American Institutes of Research. New statistics compiled on each state show both over- and under-representation of minorities in the categories for "mental retardation," "specific learning disabilities," and "emotional disturbance."

Minority Overrepresentation in Special Education

The study found that African-American students in Connecticut, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Nebraska are more than four times as likely to be identified as mentally retarded than white students living in those states. In Florida, Alabama, Delaware, New Jersey, and Colorado, the number of African-American students identified as mentally retarded was more than three times that of white students.

In a similar comparison of students by race, the researcher found that African-American students in Nebraska were six times more likely to be identified as emotionally disturbed and those in Iowa were four times as likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed than their white counterparts. African-American students in Kentucky, Montana, Utah, and Minnesota were three times more likely to be identified as emotionally disturbed while black students in Louisiana, Washington, Oregon, West Virginia, and North Carolina were more than twice as likely as white students to be targeted for such special programs.

The problem of minority overrepresentation in special education is particularly troubling, according to the researchers, because of the growing use of high stakes tests that burden poorly taught children with diploma denial and grade level retention. One study suggests that the inappropriate reliance on high-stakes testing likely exacerbates the consistent problem of the exclusion of low achieving and special education students from state assessments used for school and district accountability.

Two of the reports also suggest that inappropriate and inadequate special education services may be a leading factor in overrepresentation of minority adolescents in the juvenile justice system.

"Despite some far-reaching improvements, both racial and disability discrimination persists," says Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. "As a result, minority children deemed eligible for special education are in jeopardy of being discriminated against on the grounds of both race and disability."

Special education provides important services and supports to more than 11 percent of all students nationwide. In 1998, approximately 1.5 million minority children were identified as having mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or a specific learning disability.

A Denial of Equality of Opportunity

Some minority children do need special education support, but far too often they receive low-quality services and watered-down curriculum instead of effective support, the research suggests. Moreover, research reveals that minority students are less likely to be mainstreamed than similarly situated white students. Most pronounced is the dramatic overrepresentation of African-American male children labeled "mentally retarded" and "emotionally disturbed" compared to whites, as well as other minorities. To the extent that minority students are misclassified, segregated, or inadequately served, special education can contribute to a denial of equality of opportunity, with devastating results in communities throughout the nation.

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University believes that special education programs need to be reassessed by researchers, policy makers, advocates, and educators in terms of the positive and negative implications for minority students. In commissioning this new research and bringing it to the attention of policy makers on the federal level, the Civil Rights Project hopes to contribute sound research to the current debates surrounding education reform and federal oversight. For example, these studies clearly refute the common myth that racial overrepresentation in special education can be explained away by factors associated with poverty. Among the most disturbing findings is that for black males the chances of being labeled "mentally retarded" actually increase as factors associated with wealth increase.

Segregation More Likely for Disabled Students

Most importantly, this research offers new understanding and insights about how regular and special education together must be improved to better serve all children in this country.

"Students with disabilities served in urban settings, in which minorities predominate, have higher likelihood of being placed in segregated settings, and lower likelihood of accessing challenging curricula," said Tom Hehir, lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. He directed the division of special education programming at the U.S. Department of Education for six years under the Clinton Administration and oversaw the implementation of the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which created new opportunities for change.

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University has evolved into a many-faceted undertaking, involving both cooperation across institutional and disciplinary lines within Harvard, and joint ventures with institutions and thinkers around the country. By building strong collaborations between researchers, community organizations, lawyers and policy makers, CRP can:

  • Generate and synthesize research on key civil rights and equal opportunity policies
  • Improve channels of communication through which research findings are translated
  • Build and connect networks of academic, policy, legal and other professionals with community-based and national civil rights organizations
  • Convene conferences drawn from a full range of appropriate disciplines and perspectives
  • Design and conduct trainings for students, community leaders, journalists, policy officials, lawyers, business leaders, postdoctoral fellows and others.

For More Information

Contact Susan Foster at (202) 955-9450


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