Black Boys and Special Education – Change Is Needed!

by Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu

blackboysSpecial education in this country has reached a state of national crisis. This $60 billion industry is impacting the lives of many American children – and disproportionately black boys. Clearly, special education is a vital part of education in general, but when it is misused, black boys are the ones suffering.

Black males are challenged in numerous ways in and outside the classroom. Only 61 percent of African-American male regular students graduate from high school in urban areas. Consider then that only 27 percent of African-American male special education students graduate from high school.

The state of crisis for black boys is based on a need to look at the overall issues impacting their lives and to consider new approaches to dealing with the problem. Special education has been used as an automatic answer to behavior and emotional problems that can and should be addressed in a variety of ways. In many cases, Ritalin and special education are seen as quick fixes. Ritalin is the fifth leading drug in America after nicotine, alcohol, cocaine and marijuana.

The problem is systemic. Little boys in need of positive role models, needing more academic support, boys who come to school hungry, some who have been abused, boys with a slow start in early school preparation, precocious or hyperactive boys – all may find themselves with the same future in special education.

Economic Impact
The economic connection is that prisons project new construction based on current fourth grade reading levels. How unfortunate it is that we believe it is better to incarcerate someone at $28,000 per year rather than teach a child to read for less than $1,000. What’s the connection? Eighty percent of special education students are deficient in reading and writing. ADD and ADHD represent 50 percent of the diagnoses of all children placed in special education.

The truth is that it is difficult to solve this problem without discussing the difficult issue of racism in the United States. There are four stages we go through before solving any problem: We first deny, then admit, understand, and appreciate. Once beyond the denial phase, we must admit that race is a factor. We must honestly ask ourselves if there has been any discrimination that exists in special education. Once we are able to admit to the racism and discrimination that exist in special education, we can begin to understand how racism is expressed in this industry. And finally, we must appreciate the racial and cultural differences of African-American children, particularly males, so that we can reduce their disproportionate placement in special education.

Since the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education case in 1954, there has been a 66 percent decline in African-American teachers. Presently, only 7 percent of American teachers are African American, while the student body is 17 percent. African-American males account for only 1 percent of that teaching force, and the majority of them are employed in junior and senior high schools. Unfortunately, an African American boy can go to school from kindergarten to sixth grade without ever experiencing an African-American male teacher. Along with that are an increasing number of white female teachers.

Special education was never intended to be used as a dumping ground for male students, in particular, African-American male students. As we attempt to begin investigating the truth about the disproportionate number of black male students in special education, could the reason be that the ideal student, the norm, the benchmark, is the white female student? Remember, even white males are placed in special education at a far greater rate than white female students.

The following behaviors and attributes paint the profile of the ideal student:

  • Quiet
  • Can sit still for long periods of time
  • A long attention span
  • Can work independently
  • Likes ditto sheets
  • A left-brain learner
  • Passive
  • Speaks standard English
  • Two-parent home
  • Learned reading before second grade
  • Well developed fine motor skills

When you compare this list with the attributes of many male students and consider learning styles and culture of African-American children, it is easier to understand why African-American children represent only 17 percent of the school population but constitute more than 30 percent of the children in special education. It also becomes apparent why African-American males represent almost 80 percent of African-American children placed.

Inequities in discipline are also a factor. In The Color of Discipline, Professor Russell Skiba of Indiana University says that the determination factors for placing a child in special education, suspension, and expulsion are highly subjective. White middle-income females receive warnings, low-income African Americans, especially males, receive special education, suspension, and expulsion.

There is indeed a schoolhouse to jailhouse track. There is a relationship between special education and prison, Ritalin and cocaine, between illiteracy and incarceration. But it does not have to be the case. There is something each teacher can do – especially those with large numbers of African-American boys.

While there are no easy answers to the problem of overuse of special education for black boys, there are some tested steps that can be taken.

*Pre-Referral Intervention Process – This solution comes from The National Association of Black School Educators (NABSE).There is clearly a need for a step prior to special education referral, at which time instructional staff may request help with a child who exhibits an academic or behavioral problem that the teacher is unable to solve. The pre-referral intervention process is such a strategy because it prevents referrals by assisting teachers and students with the problem in the context of the general education classroom. Although different pre-referral intervention approaches exist, they all have one important purpose: to provide supports necessary to maintain a student in general education if at all possible. The professional literature suggests that pre-referral intervention processes show promise for preventing the over identification of African-American students for special education referrals.

*Early Intervention – Since well-designed early intervention programs have been shown to affect cognitive and social functioning, one would expect that those improvements would move some number of students with mild disabilities over the threshold separating those who require special supports and those who do not. There are some known factors that should be considered to avoid problems that black males frequently face. The showdown and power struggle that can occur between black boys and female teachers and their mothers can frequently be a factor in placing them on the path to special education. This is a critical age for Rites of Passage and other opportunities that help them to become aware of the criteria of manhood.

*In-School Suspensions – Frequently, suspensions are given for offenses such as fights and other aggressive behavior. First, schools must commit to change. Set aside a policy that suspensions will be held at school. Set aside a dedicated “Dr. King” room for in-house suspensions. The room should be well lit and set up for students to work. Lesson plans could include intervention materials such as role play when someone brushes against you and appropriate responses.  Have students read and write about people in history who used non-violent means to solve their problems.

*Single-Gender Classes – Public schools should consider establishing single-gender classrooms. I encourage you to read the literature from the National Association of Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE). In the past decade, there has been government approval of single-gender classrooms. It has been accepted that they are in compliance with Title 9 legislation. As long as schools provide the same resources for females as males, single-gender classrooms are acceptable. NASSPE has become a clearinghouse for numerous schools and hundreds of single-gender classrooms that are making fantastic gains, not only in terms of academic achievement, but also in a reduction of suspensions and special education placements.

I hope that the above solutions have been helpful and hat you will seriously consider implementing them in your school.

It is the teacher’s job to make the classroom a place where every child can learn, to adjust to learning differences, and to find a way to connect to every child – none are expendable.  Be prepared to dig deeper to help every child fulfill their dream and to see the giant inside them.
Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu is an educational consultant with African-American Images. He is on the lecture circuit with more than 30 different workshops, addressing students, parents, teachers, churches, and community residents. He is also the author of Developing Strong Black Male Ministries, Hip Hop Street Curriculum: Keeping It Real, Black Students – Middle-Class Teachers, State of Emergency: We Must Save African American Males to name a few. Visit

Related Information:

Dr. Steve Perry helping students go to College

Experts Call for More Black Male Teachers 11/3/09

On April 17, 2009, posted in: Teachers Of Color Magazine Spring 2009 by

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