Jacintha is the mother of nine kids, kids who don't all have the same father. She is black, with a history of drug abuse. And she lives in a once-thriving section of Miami—Overtown—that was sliced up by highways, turning a thriving community into a destitute one, said Elizabeth Harry, a professor of special education at the University of Miami.
Although the school requested permission to evaluate one of her sons, Robert, for an evaluation, suspecting he might have a disability, it took months before the evaluation ever happened. In the mean time, his school started sending Robert, 11 at the time, home halfway through the school day. Jacintha was told Robert couldn't benefit from a full day of school, Barry told a group at the Council for Exceptional Children's annual convention in Denver.
By the time he got his diagnosis of emotional/behavioral disability, one disproportionately used for black males, the school year was nearly over.
"This was a black school, in a black neighborhood," said Elizabeth Harry, a professor of special education at the University of Miami. "Racism is endemic: Many of us who have been victims are perpetrators of it."
Robert, it turned out, actually had ADHD.
Harry said strategies including response to intervention are making a dent in the overidentification of some students of some backgrounds as having particular disabilities. But it may not be enough to overcome deeply rooted stereotyping all by itself.
She said it took her just a few minutes at Jacintha's home, where she shared photo albums chronicling each of her children's lives and where there was discipline—enough that the toddler of the household knew where his mother kept her pens—to see that stereotypes about black women with many children had colored the school's treatment of this woman and her son with a disability.
Harry told another story, about a girl named Kanita, who was being raised by her grandmother. Kanita was also labeled as having an emotional/behavioral disability, in part because of the way she reacted whenever her mother came up in conversation. She would become withdrawn. At 9, Kanita's grandmother said, the little girl had begun to understand what it meant that your mother was in prison and not raising her.
Kanita's grandparents owned their home and a nearby dry cleaning business. And Kanita had close relationships with her extended family. But she was sad, nevertheless, Harry said.
The psychologist told the grandmother that "kids in this neighborhood aren't embarrassed by that."
"Tell me if this isn't endemic racism," Harry told the crowd.
Eventually, although Kanita excelled in school, scoring in the 98th percentile on a state math test, she was transferred to a separate school just for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
In addition to the use of RTI, many states now monitor the percentage of children by race labeled by disability. Those rates are decreasing in some places, Harry said, but the numbers need to be looked at closely. Some states simply rewrote the rules on what numbers mean a particular racial group is overrepresented in a given disability.
"Is it a surprise that overrepresentation is going down?" Harry said. "We just redefined it."