Face of Autism Too White?

Brian McCready, New Haven Register, January 31, 2010

Amity Regional School District officials say it just doesn’t make sense: Why is the district being punished for having too many white autistic kids?

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It’s a thorny issue for all sides. When one racial group–black, white or otherwise–appears to be getting a disproportionate amount of special education funding, red flags go up at the federal Department of Education. But local educators said they are powerless to control the racial makeup of their community and who is diagnosed with autism, which is under the special education umbrella.

{snip} The issue also hints at a hidden trend: Parents of autistic children may be moving to certain communities because the public school district has a good reputation for educating autistic children.

Amity Superintendent of Schools John Brady said he is frustrated and shocked. His dilemma began last year when the district–which serves Bethany, Orange and Woodbridge–received a letter from the state Department of Education. The state told Amity it has too many white students who are diagnosed as autistic when compared to other racial subgroups. Amity last year had 38 white autistic students, one Asian and one black.

Amity and Vernon are the only two school systems in the state and among only a handful nationwide to have a “significant disproportionate” amount of white autistic students, state officials said.

Such a classification requires the district to divert 15 percent of its Individual with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, federal funds, or $67,000 in Amity’s case this year, toward programs designed to reduce those numbers.

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If the number of white autistic students at Amity does not decline, the district may face the further loss of federal funds, which would have to be absorbed by taxpayers, Brady said. The amount of the loss is not yet known and Brady said there is nothing Amity can do to change the numbers.

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BUREAUCRACY

Mary Kuseler, assistant director for the Washington-based American Association of School Administrators, said Amity finds itself in this delicate situation because of the 2004 federal IDEA law.

The origins of the law date back to 1975; it guarantees a free and appropriate education for people with disabilities. But over the years, officials started to notice increasing numbers of referrals for black males into special education.

The feds wanted to ensure students were not over identified as being in need of special education. There was a concern that some teachers, especially in impoverished districts, would identify students with behavioral issues as special education.

Kuseler said this meant many black males were taken out of a regular education classroom, when in fact they had no academic issues warranting special education classes.

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“It became a civil rights issue,” Kuseler said. “It was a well-intended rule, (to impose limits on numbers of autistic students in any district) but Amity has been caught by a rule that (it) was never meant to be caught by. It’s putting those districts in a tight position where they face the loss of money in a tough economy.”

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Brady said Amity has a 90 percent white student population so it makes sense a majority of their students with autism would be white.

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