Imagine being the parent of a black child with special needs living in a poverty ridden section of a major U.S. city. You live in a so-called “failing” school district, but you nonetheless do everything in your power to convince the school to give your child the extra help and services he or she needs. Your child has so much potential; doesn’t he or she deserve the same services given to more wealthy families in better school districts?
Children from the poorest neighborhoods are at greater risk of low educational achievement and attainment, and their crowded schools typically lack adequate funding. Children from minority groups are particularly disadvantaged: Black and American Indian children are more likely than white children to be held back a grade or suspended from school. While they make up only 15 percent of the student population, black children account for more than 20 percent of special education students. Yet, even when black students receive special services, they are no less likely to be held back a grade or to be suspended from school.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education found that about 5.8 million students (ages 6-21 years old) were receiving special education services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA). This act, along with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EAHCA), has formed the legal basis for special education in the United States.
The purpose of special education laws are to make sure that every child with a disability has an equal opportunity to benefit from free public education. Children have the right to a free public education (which is granted to students between the ages of 5 and 21) and to attend the public school in the district where they live without payment of tuition. Children have the right to a free appropriate public education, which says that students with disabilities are entitled to receive an education that fits their needs. Students also have the right to education in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Students with disabilities have the right to equal access and due process, which protects them under the law and encourages schools and parents to work together and challenge any recommendation regarding a student’s program.
Although children are legally guaranteed these rights, there are often disputes between a child’s advocate and their school district over whether they are receiving services tailored to meet their individual needs. Some of the major areas of dispute involve a student’s “eligibility for special education (or appropriateness of classification), the appropriateness of their program, the determination of the least restrictive environment or placement, and accommodations for students with disabilities.” Other issues include students with special needs being mistaken for being lazy or bored in the classroom, insufficient funding for special education, low parental involvement, and low socioeconomic status of the family.
Graduation rates are below 40 percent in places such as Detroit and Cleveland. The national graduation rates for blacks and Latinos are around 50 percent. It is clear that the U.S. educational system has indeed earned the moniker of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
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Albany/Office for Special Education Services (1993). A parent’s guide to special education for children ages 5-21: Your child’s right to an education in New York State. Albany, NY.
Education Week (2004). Special education. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/special-education/.
Children’s Defense Fund (2009). Cradle to prison pipeline campaign. Children’s Defense Fund. Retrieved from http://www.childrensdefense.org/child-research-data-publications/data/cradle-prison-pipeline-summary-report
Student Researchers: Brittani Griffin, Stacey McWhinnie, Samuel South
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Mo Hannah, Siena College
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