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WEYMOUTH — Four South Shore school districts were flagged by the state in the last academic year for disproportionately identifying Black and African American students with certain special education needs compared to peers of other ethnicities.
The state, as part of a federal law, monitors districts’ special education classifications and those that see significant disproportion by ethnicity are required to review and, if necessary, revise their policies.
Milton and Scituate were flagged for disproportionately categorizing Black students as having communication disabilities. Weymouth was identified for disproportionately classifying Black students with intellectual disabilities and Hingham found specific learning disabilities in Black students at a higher rate than compared to their peers.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities says systemic racial biases can lead to the overclassification of minority students as requiring special education and that this placement isn’t an adequate tool to teach students that don’t need it.
“The challenge here is making sure we’re identifying the right students because there can be harm in identifying students incorrectly as needing special education services,” said Meghan Whittaker, the center’s policy and advocacy director in an interview. “It’s not to say that no students of color with disabilities should be enrolled in special education. We just need to make sure that we’re addressing all of their needs and we’re not using special education as a catch-all because we don’t know how to parse out other complex things that may be occurring for them, whether it has to do with being from a low-income background, or having English not as their first language.”
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Two South Shore school districts, Quincy and South Shore Regional Vocational Technical, were flagged for their white students being identified with health disabilities at rates higher than their peers. Twenty-nine districts across the state were flagged for disproportionality issues, 19 of them for non-white students.
Districts are required to use federal money from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to address possible factors of disproportionality. No South Shore districts were flagged for two other areas the state monitors: special education disciplinary removal rates and separation in which special education students spend less than 40 percent of their day in a regular class.
The state uses a “risk ratio” to calculate special education placement by race.
In Scituate, for example, the district had 74 Black students out of 3,014 total students in the 2019-20 academic year and those students had a higher likelihood of being identified as having a communication disability, according to Schools Superintendent William Burkhead.
“Six Black students were identified as having a communication disability as a primary disability, which represents 8.1 percent of all Black students in our district. In comparison, there were 36 white students who were identified as having a primary communication disability, which represents 1.6 percent of all white students,” Burkhead said in an email.
Burkhead said his district formed a committee of school officials to look into the issue and conduct a “root cause analysis” and submitted an action plan to the state last month. The plan includes additional professional development “to strengthen culturally responsive instructional and assessment practices.”
Some issues the school district found that may have been contributing factors to disproportionate classification included “lack of student engagement and feelings of belonging that may have impacted academic achievement and resulted in referrals to special education,” and lack of supports or interventions in general education settings that led to students being referred directly to special education programming.
Hingham Public Schools Assistant Superintendent James LaBillois said his district saw Black students classified as having learning disabilities at a rate of about four times their peers. The district has also formed a working group to look at the issue and is hiring special education inclusion specialists, LaBillois said. He said teachers have also undergone implicit bias training among other initiatives undertaken by the district.
In Weymouth, the district has commissioned John Guilfoil Public Relations to conduct a review of special education disproportionality that is not to exceed $49,500.
Black students in Weymouth were diagnosed with an intellectual disability at a rate of about five times their white peers. In the 2018-19 school year, 11 out of 400 Black students were identified as having an intellectual disability as compared to 24 out of more than 4,300 white students.
Alyssa Haggerty, a spokeswoman for Weymouth Public Schools, said that the risk ratio for the 2019-20 school year was lower than the previous year and in a range no longer considered disproportionate by the state. The district will no longer be considered disproportionate if it stays at an acceptable ratio for at least three years.
“Weymouth Public Schools has been proactive in reviewing and assessing this information,” Haggerty said. “This year the special education department, working with district administration, developed a strategic plan to address disproportionality in its schools. Through collaboration with department administrators, team chairs and school psychologists, an evaluation process with clear expectations was developed.
Milton Public Schools Superintendent James Jette said in an email that “action plans have been developed and submitted to the state.” He said the district is also implementing “restorative justice” practices.
“The idea is to bring students together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions and air their grievances,” Jette said.
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Joe Difazio can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jldifazio.