Children with Disabilities in
Public Schools

1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education

The 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education addressed the admission of  Black students in racially segregated schools including public schools in Virginia.  In so doing, this case dealt with inclusion. However, while this is still an ongoing problem, the most serious problem with public education today is keeping black students, especially those with disabilities in public schools. Also, the challenge is assuring that these children receive a free appropriate public education which is known as FAPE under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) where millions if not billions of federal funds are given to public schools to overcome “the barriers that persist for students of color, students with disabilities, and students at the intersection of race and disability categories”.

It is crystal clear that over the past several years that disability and race discrimination is rampant in public schools throughout this Commonwealth as well as nationally such that the problem with school segregation which was geared to getting Black children into predominantly white public school systems has now morphed to keeping them in the school because they are “over-represented in school discipline” especially with out- of- school suspensions and expulsions.

This is evidenced in a 2017 study and report authored by Ms. Anne Holton, Virginia’s First Lady from 2006-2010,  and Virginia’s Secretary of Education in 2014-2016.  In her report titled “A Review of Equity and Parent Engagement in Special Education in Henrico County Public Schools“ Ms. Holton addresses among other things:  disproportionality in school discipline of students of color and students with disabilities and the lack of access to quality educational opportunities for all students with disabilities.  We have included for visitors to this website a hyperlink to access a full copy of this important report and its findings and conclusions.  We strongly urge that you read this document.

In her report, Ms. Holton states: “data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC)… suggests that in 2014, Black students were suspended at about three times the rate of their White peers across the nation. Additionally, ongoing research has illuminated the persistence of the disproportionate identification of Black and Native American students with disabilities. This can impact not only students’ access to proper educational opportunities but also their educational outcomes.”

Rarely if ever are superintendents and elected school boards required to explain why these children are denied FAPE or why Black and/or children with disabilities are more likely to have their behavioral conduct referred for criminal prosecution while this rarely happens to white students similarly situated.

The answer is that school boards fail to carry out their responsibility to promulgate policies and procedures that prevent this kind of disproportionality. Without such policies appointed superintendents and staff ignore race and disability inequities and are prone to criminalize in-school behavior.

If elected school boards emphasized zero-tolerance of such inequities, there would be a significant decrease in such instances and school districts would save thousands or millions of dollars in legal fees incurred to defend cases where there is a denial of FAPE. Also, this would reduce the infamous “School to Prison Pipeline” where Black students with and without disabilities either drop out or are forced out of schools without an adequate education or sufficient skills to earn a decent living with the predictable result that they end up going to prison.

This is a counterintuitive result because everyone knows the cost-benefit ratio for education versus incarceration where it costs about $9000 a year to educate a child while it costs over $40,000 a year to incarcerate that same child.

Our advocacy will focus on the macro problem of getting the public to demand that their elected school boards put in place policies and practices that enforce and implement the requirements of IDEA and hold superintendents and staff and faculty strictly accountable to follow and adhere to these policies and practices.

Ms. Holton demonstrated through charts and graphs the extent of these inequities in Henrico County’s special education program as follows:

From Ann Holton Henrico County Schools Report

This graph shows that Black students are 1.7 times more likely to be identified with disabilities than their non-Black peers.

This graph illustrates the risk ratio of Black students who do not come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds receiving a short-term OSS is 12% (723/6,007), versus a risk ratio of 2.7% of White students who do not come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds receiving a short-term OSS (439/16,224).

Risk Ratios of Short-Term OSS for Students With and Without Disabilities, 2016-17

This graph illustrates the risk ratios for students with and without disabilities in the 2016-2017 school year. In 2016-2017 there were 6,403 students with disabilities in HCPS, who collectively received 2,083 short-term OSS, for a risk ratio of 32.5% (2,083/6,403).

This graph illustrates the overrepresentation of Black students in receiving short-term OSS in HCPS.

This graph illustrates the percent of short-term OSS given to students with disabilities by race in 2016-17. We found that 2,083 short-term OSS were given to students with disabilities, with 1,585 short-term OSS given to Black students with disabilities.

Risk Ratios of Short-Term OSS by Economic Background for Students With and Without Disabilities, 2016-17

This graph illustrates the risk ratio for economically disadvantaged students with disabilities.

How We Will Advocate for

Children with Disabilities in Public Schools

We will advocate at School Board meetings throughout the greater Richmond area and speak to the need for implementing policies and procedures for zero-tolerance in discriminating against Black students and students with disabilities.  We will also urge these boards to oversee that staff and faculty adhere to these policies and procedures.

We will organize seminars to be held in local libraries, churches or other public spaces where we can assist parents in advocating for their children.  Included in these seminars: teaching the intricacies of the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) which is a written document developed for each public school child who is eligible for special education; how to effectively participate in meetings with special education staff and faculty; and, how to bring your child’s issues and needs to superintendents, School Board or standing School Board committees. 

Lastly, we will advocate the creation of parent resource centers by school districts so that parents can get the necessary training to become effective advocates for their children.