Study finds possible racial and gender bias in special education

On Behalf of | Jun 7, 2022 | Education Law |

New York schools have systems designed to meet the needs of children with disabilities, but these systems can benefit children only if someone first refers the child to the necessary services. In many cases, it is the parents who take the initiative in securing special education services for a child. In other cases, it is the child’s teacher who notices an issue and recommends special education.

Unfortunately, a new study suggests that teachers may be more likely to recommend special education for some students than for others who have similar needs. Whether consciously or unconsciously, teachers may let their own racial and gender biases influence their determinations of which students should receive special education.

Racial and gender disparities

The study, which was overseen by a professor at New York University, looked at more than 2,000 schools in another state to see how many of their nearly 430,000 students had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for special education services. Researchers then predicted how many children of different races and genders would be among the students who had IEP. They then judged those predicted numbers against the actual numbers, and found they did not line up. The students with IEPs were much more likely to be boys than the numbers predicted. This suggests that teachers and others were more likely to recommend boys for special education than girls.

The study also looked at the disabilities of the children with IEPs and found another disturbing disparity: White children were more likely to have IEPs for so-called high status disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, while Black and indigenous children were more likely to have IEPs for so-called lower status disabilities such as emotional behavior disorder. This suggests that teachers and others have higher expectations for white children and, when a white child fails to live up to these expectations, they look for a medical diagnosis to explain why.

Parents of children with special needs sometimes need to fight to get their children the help they need at school. It can be helpful to seek out advice from attorneys with experience in education law.