Background/Context: Disproportionate placement of African American students into special education programs is likely to be a form of institutional racism, especially when such placement stigmatizes students. If placement also fails to lead to educational benefits, the practice becomes even more suspect. Some studies have explored disproportionate placement (i.e., overrepresentation) from the perspectives of policy makers and educators, but few have looked at the practice from the vantage of the African American students experiencing it.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study explored how nine African American students in secondary special education placements perceived their school experiences and the benefits, challenges, and detriments associated with their placements and accompanying disability labels.
Setting: Participating students attended one of three high schools in an urban district in the midwestern United States. Respectively, the schools had low, medium, and high percentages of students on individualized education programs (IEPs).
Population/Participants/Subjects: Three students from each of three schools participated in the study. With the help of school personnel, the researchers selected students who (1) were African American, (2) were juniors or seniors, (3) carried the label of learning disabilities or mild cognitive impairment, and (4) had received special education services for at least three years.
Research Design: The researchers used an in-depth interview design including three increasingly detailed interviews with each student. Verbatim transcripts of interviews provided the data the researchers analyzed using (1) inductive coding, (2) development of case-specific profiles, (3) organization of codes to identify patterns in the data, and (4) identification of emergent themes.
Findings/Results: Three emergent themes suggested that, in most cases, students found the negative consequences of their special education placement to outweigh any benefits. The limited benefits of placement included interactions with responsive teachers and, in a few cases, more suitable instructional pacing. The negative consequences included the experience of being stigmatized by peers, making limited academic progress because of a slow-paced curriculum, and confronting barriers that kept them from returning to general education placements.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The study found that traumatic events in the students’ lives led to academic difficulties, which subsequently led to placement in special education. Rather than supporting the students through a difficult phase of their lives, educators used special education referral and placement as a form of victim blaming. This response had the effect of excluding the students from engagement with the general education curriculum and from interaction with friends. The dynamics of victim blaming led the researchers to judge special education referral and placement of the nine African American students as a form of institutional racism.