In Minnesota, race drives school labels, discipline for students

Jeffrey Meitrodt, Star Tribune (Minneapolis), December 18, 2013

The little yellow buses line up every morning outside Harrison Education Center in north Minneapolis, discharging dozens of teenagers to a high school no parents choose for their child.

Classrooms are kept locked at all times. Fights and suspensions are common. No one has graduated in a couple of years.

The school is where Minneapolis sends special education students with the worst behavior problems, kids who typically failed everywhere else they went. Administrators say the high school is supposed to be a temporary stop for students to learn self-control before going back to a less restrictive setting.

But few ever leave. And nearly 90 percent of the students are black.

Discrimination in the way students are labeled and disciplined has plagued special education across the country for decades, but a Star Tribune review of state and federal enrollment records shows that the problem is especially acute in Minnesota.

More than 4 percent of all black students in Minnesota are identified as having emotional or behavioral disorders, a subjective, catchall label for thousands of children considered disruptive. That rate is more than three times the national average for black students and higher than any other state in the country, according to the most recent federal data available.


School officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the issue is most stark, acknowledged that racial bias is tainting special education and vowed to address the long-standing problem.

“We are disappointed in the overrepresentation, and we know we must do something about it,” said Bernadeia Johnson, superintendent of Minneapolis public schools. “It’s too high. If it is 2 percent, it is too high.” Minneapolis’ rate is 7 percent; in St. Paul, it is nearly 8 percent.


For many students, getting labeled as having an emotional or behavioral disorder (also known as EBD) is devastating. About 40 percent of EBD students drop out of high school, according to federal statistics, a rate twice as high as any other disability category.


Blacks accounted for 30 percent of students in her [Liz Keenan, who oversees special education programs in St. Paul] district but made up two-thirds of its EBD program.

By contrast, white students, who make up 24 percent of enrollment, accounted for about two-thirds of students identified with autism spectrum disorder.

“I thought, ‘Here is the racial dividing line,’ ” Keenan recalled. “When you look at the criteria for EBD, it is extremely subjective. It is not a blood test. It is not an IQ test. You simply have to show signs of behavior outside of the norms.”

In Minnesota, she said, mostly white educators decide who has a disorder and who doesn’t.

“We can’t fool ourselves,” Keenan said. “[Autistic] kids are tearing up the classrooms, too. But it is perceived differently when you have a black student tearing it up than a white student.”

University researchers have blamed cultural differences for much of the problem.

Educators “look at a loud, aggressive white child and label them spirited, and the very same behavior with a black child is labeled emotional behavioral disorder,” said social worker Teresa Graham, who has worked in Minneapolis and other districts.


The job of rooting out racial discrimination in special ed has largely been left to states, which have taken different approaches to defining the problem.

In Minnesota, no school district has been forced to take action when disabled minority students have been disciplined too much or are too often identified as EBD or having other disabilities.

Federal officials first notified Minnesota about that issue in 2010, concluding that the state’s ratio for defining unequal treatment was “too high.” At the time, a school district could face consequences only if minorities were disciplined five times as often as whites or dominated a disability category, such as EBD, by a ratio of 5-1. Under Minnesota’s rules, a district also has to be cited three years in a row and must have practices that caused the problem.

Minnesota lowered its ratio to 4-1 in 2011. That remains among the highest thresholds in the country, according to a report this year from the Government Accountability Office. At least six other states use a similar ratio.


The Minnesota Department of Education defends its handling of the issues . . . .


At an August meeting, it brought in national speakers to help districts create action plans to address racial inequities.



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