Though fewer black students in special education in District 97 were identified as “emotionally disturbed (ED)” this past school year, a disproportionate number are still referred to special education under that distinction.

That is a concern, says school board President Michelle Harton, and should be reflected in the board’s goals for the next school year regarding special education.

Harton stressed that point at the board’s regular meeting June 11. Members have been fine-tuning the language of next year’s goal during the last few meetings. The goals have yet to be approved by the board, but Harton last week pushed to specifically add language addressing the ED special ed designation.

The goal currently under consideration for next year deals with special education enrollment as a whole.

“I don’t want us to lose sight of the fact that there is this disproportion, and I think that it is definitely implied here, but I’m not going to assume that the public knows that it’s reflected here,” said Harton. “This is a paramount issue because that is a distinct concern for me when I go out and talk to parents.”

Last year’s goal, she pointed out, had specifically addressed the district’s need to decrease ED referrals among black students.

“This really highlighted the fact that that was a significant issue for an African-American family in this district, and the new goal doesn’t say that at all,” Harton said.

Members were open and generally supportive of her request.

Steve Castle, District 97’s director of special education, explained that the wording was changed to address the needs of the entire special education population. Castle, though, added that specific subgroups could be reflected in the new goal.

“I don’t want to necessarily just limit it to emotional disability. I want to make sure that we’re looking not only at that disability category specifically, but the whole enrollment,” he said. “We want to look at it multiple ways. We want to look at that big number for sure, but then we also want to disaggregate it according to racial subgroups and disability categories.”

Harton also would like to see the goal reflect the district’s “relative risk ratio” regarding black students identified as ED. The ratio is a state measure to track the number of black students categorized as ED compared to the rest of the student population. The state tracks the ratio over a three-year period. The Illinois State Board of Education found in 2006-07 that a black student in Dist. 97 was 4.32 times more likely to be identified as emotionally disturbed than any other student. That ratio dropped to 2.3 times likelihood this past school year-an improvement, Harton acknowledged, but still a significant number requiring attention.

Students in Dist. 97 are identified as ED based on certain characteristics, such as displaying anxiety or depression, or showing an inability to develop interpersonal relationships with peers or adults. The student’s IEP (Individualized Education Program) team monitors whether there’s a high frequency of those behaviors over time.

Castle attributed the ratio’s decrease to intervention efforts at the school buildings. Part of that intervention involves students meeting with school social workers in pullout classrooms but keeping them integrated with the regular education population.

A larger concern, Castle noted, is whether black students are being mis-categorized as ED, noting that identification procedures and how students are tested is currently being evaluated.

“Conversations have gone on as to how kids can slip through the cracks,” he said.

The district, however, continues to see a significant number of black students enrolled in special ed compared to the general student population.

Based on estimates from its Fall 2007 Housing Report, black students make up 28 percent of Dist. 97’s total enrollment, but they comprise 43 percent of the special ed population.

What’s more, special education enrollment overall has declined in recent years, but the number of blacks enrolled has remained virtually the same.

Over the last five years, special ed enrollment declined from over 900 students from 2002-2004, to 892 in 2005 and 876 in 2006. This past school year, 852 students were enrolled in special ed. Of those students, 367 were black.

“Those numbers have been fairly consistent,” said Castle.

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