On Tuesday, Dec. 2 the Montclair Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) and the NAACP Montclair branch sponsored “Conversations on Special Education and Race in Montclair Schools” at Montclair High School. The event filled the school cafeteria with concerned parents, educators and advocates and included robust discussions on race in special education, the location of special ed classes and the need for more parent involvement.
James E. Harris, chairman, NAACP Education Committee, moderated the meeting which started with a presentation on the disproportionate representation of African American male students in special education classes for Montclair Public Schools, a summary of the steps the district is taking to address this issue and a Q&A with a panel of representatives from school staff, parent advocates and the NAACP.
“We are here tonight to talk about special education in Montclair and race,” said Harris. “Montclair has been cited by the federal government as well as the state government for having an over-representation of African American males in their special ed program.”
Linda Mithaug, director of special education services for the Montclair Public School system, gave a presentation detailing the over representation. “This is the beginning of an ongoing dialogue that we need to continue until we actually start seeing some good progress,” said Mithaug before launching into the presentation.
The data analysis showed a persistent pattern of over representation of African American males in special education in Montclair since 2000.
“This disproportionality matters because in some cases it may signal a bias in the identification of children with disabilities. Inappropriately identifying children as disabled is harmful,” said Mithaug. “Students may experience a stigma or lowered expectations associated with classification, face a higher incidence of dropouts and suspensions, and be educated in more restrictive special education settings.”
For the 2013-2014 school year African American males made up 16 percent of total enrollment, but accounted for 29 percent of special education students. White males made up 26 percent of total enrollment and accounted for 18 percent of special education students.
To address this, the Board of Education formed the Disproportionality Committee to implement a research-supported strategy fostering diversity and focusing on reading and behavioral interventions. In addition to reviewing referral data for possible improvements, the committee is collaborating with the NAACP, SEPAC and the Statewide Parent Advisory Network (SPAN) to create opportunities for information sharing about race and special education.
Mithaug’s presentation was followed by a question and answer session. One questioner asked who determines the counseling hours that each school has.
Mithaug said she collaborates with the supervisor and principal to determine that and added “as we prepare for next year’s budget we’re talking about the counseling needs of the high school because we’re very aware that we need support.” When asked if the Board would add additional counselors, Mithaug said “I can’t answer that right now, but it’s certainly something we’re going to be looking at.”
Another question referred to the pattern of diagnosis and classification of African American males in special education, such as self-contained work environment and emotional disorders, and at what age are they being classified.
Lisa Bishop, of the Montclair High School Child Study Team, explained that when a child is being classified they go through a series of testing. Classification is based on what is shown in the testing. No matter what happens, the parents and the team make the final determination. Mithaug added that a future meeting the Disproportionality Committee will be looking at all the referral data and investigating if those students received interventions and what was the race and gender of those students.
“Overall the classification rate in Montclair is 16 to 17 percent which is significantly higher, Mithaug said. “Part of the reason we have this pattern of over identification is that every school has an intervention committee but there’s been a lot of turnover in the district. With turnover you have new people coming in and you have to reestablish the practices to make sure we are providing the intervention before students are getting referred to special ed.”
One parent expressed concern over her special needs child, an African American male, being put in the basement of his school for special ed classes.
Joseph Putrino, principal of Glenfield School, was in the audience and addressed concerns about classes in the basement.
“Every school in this town does it differently based on the structure of that building,” said Putrino. “There is no principal or educator in this district that wants kids in the basement. At Glenfield we have one special education class in the basement and people fight to get into that room because it has air conditioning and is one of the more luxurious rooms…We have three special education specific classrooms on the main floor and two on the second floor. We have intervention rooms across the school, and every child, regardless of classification general education, uses every room in our building. Our buildings are designed differently and we work over time to make them functional.”
Putrino concluded by recommending if a parent feels their child is being educated in an inappropriate setting, they should go to the school and take a look.
Harris followed Putrino’s remarks by saying, “Let me reiterate the NAACP position. We’re not going to be happy with the black kids in the basement. Move them somewhere else. Put those bright kids in those smaller classes in the basement and see what buzz comes about. It’s going to be different this year. The NAACP is going to stay on this like white on rice.”
An attendee suggested the district conduct an audit of all the classes conducted in the basement to separate fact from rumor. Mithaug said the committee would “absolutely” look into that.
Many of the questions submitted by parents asked about how they could advocate for their special needs children. The panel answered by saying parents should work with the Montclair Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC). They have liaisons at every school in the district. To get on their confidential distribution list, send an email to MontclairSEPAC@gmail.com. Information about SEPAC was distributed at the meeting.
Michele Tyler, of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, gave the closing remarks.
“Doing this throughout the state I’ve see that you as a group have done a lot more than a lot of areas…Having a good intervention and referral service is going to do a lot to improving this proportionality.”
Tyler said that parent involvement is essential. “Tonight there’s a huge amount of parents here and that’s really important.”
After hearing that remark, one parent said she’s working with Linda Mithaug to arrange for parents who are at their child’s study team meeting in school to sign a paper saying they are willing to have a parent mentor approach them. Confidentiality regulations currently prevent this. “All they have to do is say ‘yes’ and we will go to them to make sure they are advocating for themselves. People don’t know there’s a whole community out there to help them.”