SOUTH BEND – South Bend schools have been cited by the state for shifting a disproportionate number of black students into special-education classes, a decades-old nationwide problem that critics say may reflect unspoken racial bias.
The district has nearly as many black students as white students, but blacks are more likely to be diagnosed with cognitive and emotional disabilities that take them out of mainstream classrooms. The state’s top special education official said a recent review also found the district didn’t follow legally required procedures between 2010 and 2012.
That, to me, is the biggest distinction, said Nicole Norvell, director of special education with the Indiana Department of Education.
She said not only were South Bend schools sending more black kids into special education, but they also weren’t documenting what led to the decision, including students’ current performance levels.
That’s the information that drives a student’s goals, Norvell told the South Bend Tribune. The district also didn’t keep parents adequately informed at the outset of the process, the state found.
Norvell, however, said the evaluation wasn’t based on a review of all student files.
We typically look at 5 percent of student files, she said. If we start to look and by the time we look at seven or eight files, if they’re all wrong, we stop looking, because at that point we know there is a problem.
Donna Krol, the district’s special education director, said the citation means the district has a problem that needs to be fixed, not that it broke the law.
The sanction means the district could lose $90,000 of its $6.1 million federal special-education grant, with that money shifted into intervention programs to help struggling students stay out of special ed. Teachers also have been assigned to work with mainstream students who have behavioral problems to help them remain in general education.
The problem isn’t limited to South Bend. Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, said the overabundance of black students in special is nationwide and goes back decades, to the civil rights reforms of the 1960s and ’70s
In some areas, it arose when districts resisted desegregation, Losen said. Black students would be labeled special-education students to remove them from the mainstream.
It’s not that people are harboring secret racism, he said, it’s more sort of this bigger, broader societal bias against black folks.
Special education is also a convenient way to get trouble students out of the classroom, he said.
If a kid is misbehaving, one way to get them out of your class is to get them identified, he said.
Oletha Jones, who chairs the education committee of the South Bend branch of the NAACP, wants black students already in special education to be reassessed and, if testing warrants, returned to mainstream classes.