Is the Road to Special Education (for Black Boys) Paved with the White Educator’s Paperwork?

“This ink pen is my weapon.” -Anonymous Teacher

Many studies note that there is an over identification of Black boys to special education.  While serving as the Teach For America Vice President with Teacher Leadership Development in Greater Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to spend time in classes in Trenton, Camden, and Philadelphia.

In this role, I saw 3rd grade special education classes that were 100% Black males and 9th grade special education classes that were 93% Black males.  This dynamic was unsettling and gave me reason to think more deeply about the root causes and solutions to the over representation of Black boys to special education.

Before examining root causes and potential solutions, it’s important to consider elements of history that have influenced why the education force looks the way it does.  In February of 2017, USA TODAY wrote,

“The dilemma is, in part, a little-known and unintended legacy of the Brown decision. Because most white communities in the 1950s and 1960s preferred white teachers over black ones, court-ordered desegregation often ended the teaching careers of black educators. One historian, Emory University’s Vanessa Siddle Walker, has said the culture of black teaching ‘died with Brown.’ ”

Given what has happened in the 50s and 60s, the following comment from Paul Beare, Dean of California State University-Fresno’s Kremen School of Education, makes perfect sense.

“Few minorities, especially men, think about becoming teachers. Many have simply never had minority teachers themselves, and so they don’t identify with the idea.”

As we consider the root causes and solutions for the over identification of Black boys to special education, let’s also think about how the teaching and education force shifted to its current demographic–because therein lies a systemic resolution. In conversations with several culturally competent special educators, they shared some root causes for the over identification of Black boys in special education:

  1. Root cause #1: Many White American educators see Black boys’ behavior as aberrant. “They don’t know how to respond to a black boy’s behavior; so they think he is being oppositional and then label him as oppositional defiant or attention deficit and hyperactive” instead of building relationships, understanding the rationale for his behavior, and incorporating this understanding into their teaching pedagogy.
  2. Root cause #2: “School psychologists are often White women. I’ve worked with hundreds of school psychologists, mostly White women, and they hold students up to a lens that is often deficit based.” Several special educators also noted never having worked with a school psychologist that was Black and from an urban environment, though the student population in their schools is more than 90% Black.
  3. Root cause #3: “Educators tend to not look at the teacher’s responsibility, the time of the day, the curriculum. Instead there tends to be blame on the home and the child.”
  4. Root cause #4: “School psychologists sometimes fluff the data to save the school money in case something happens; there is a fear of being sued. And districts get more money for special education; so the more children identified with IEPs, the more money for schools and districts.”

In an article on the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, Dr. Roy Jones, the director of the Call Me MISTER program, offers a word on diversifying.

“You just have to make it a priority…It’s not hard recruiting black athletes…and if you put a premium and a value on recruiting master teachers, then it won’t be hard to recruit black males who want to teach.”

Educators offered the following solutions to the over identification of Black boys to special education–but this isn’t about incremental change.  This is about reimagining and redesigning the way we think about and engage with Black boys and all the components that touch their lives.  And it certainly means diversifying the body of those making the decisions about Black boys as well as doing the mindset work with those currently in front of them and with their managers.

  1. Educators need to study the over identification of Black males in special education and apply this learning to our coaching, instructional, leadership, recruiting, and hiring frameworks. “This topic needs to be a normalized conversation in schools and school systems–not just a conversation with Black educators but with all educators. When we love our students, we think about their experience and what is best for them.”
  2. Collect data to find out the root causes of the challenges we are seeing and ask questions like:
    • With what teacher does the child have challenges?
    • At what time of day?
    • With what teacher does this child have the most success?
    • At what time of day?
    • What’s the difference between the mindset and practices of the teacher who has success and the one that doesn’t?
    • How can we use what we learn in root cause analysis to coach, train, support, and evaluate teachers and school and district leaders?
  3. Actively recruit school psychologists of colorparticularly from urban environments, to evaluate children, share their interpretation of the data, and coach, train, support, and evaluate staff–including school, network, and district leaders.
  4. Recruit staff that have a passion for working with Black boys. Interview with this lens in mind.  “Often the staff working with Black boys are not sincerely interested in Black boys. The typical school has about 22% of the students in special education. Though the national average for the population labeled emotionally disturbed is 3%, it’s 6% for Black boys.”  Transforming how we view Black boys would decrease that number and increase the quality of education for Black boys.
  5. Leadership mattersIf you are a school, network, or district leader, and you have Black boys in your school, get passionate about them and their experience.  What if you’re not passionate?  What if you are simply not interested?
    • Identify a Black male student with whom you have a strong relationship, and imagine what it would take for you to replicate this relationship with other Black males.  Then, replicate.  Get feedback from Black male students about how you are doing.  Be open.  Listen.   Engage.
    • Find staff that hold high expectations for Black males and interview them.Study them.  Not in a creepy way, but in a vulnerable, open, permission-seeking kind of way.  Embrace humility, try to see the world from the child’s perspective, and determine what you can change about your practices and mindsets. Then, commit to changing.
    • Engage in significant mindset work that will shift your perspectiveso that you become more passionate. This isn’t about perfection; this is about evolution; it’s about transformation. It’s about us facing our real selves and engaging in the work to shift the parts of us that don’t serve children well. It’s about committing to the reality that this evolution is a never-ending thing. That can feel exhausting. But as the children say, “It is what it is.” So let’s accept that and do the work.
    • Be honest with yourself. If you simply are not interested in doing the self-work necessary to serve Black boys, consider stepping down from your role.  Yeah, this option is a hard one to swallow. But I firmly believe that every school year, before we recommit to another year, we need to ask ourselves if we are in the right position to serve–if the work we are doing is what we are called to do at that moment. Sometimes we are. Sometimes we aren’t.
    • Be honest with families.  Let’s be transparent about the options parents have and help them think through the pros and cons.  Let’s invite parent advocates to the table to help us serve parents best.

One educator said, “I had my son evaluated because I am an informed educator. I knew the tests I wanted them to administer and those that I did not. And I knew when I wanted him out of special education, which was the 8th grade. I did not want him going to high school with an IEP. High school teachers wouldn’t read his IEP, and because he is a Black boy, they would assume he was emotionally disturbed and treat him as if he could not learn. In the IEP meeting, I was very clear about what I expected. And I made sure the team didn’t penalize him for things connected to his disability.”

What about families that aren’t as experienced with special education?  While serving as a principal, there were a few times when we engaged in litigious conversations with parents about special education issues.  After one particular series of conversations, I remember thinking, “What if we treated all families as if they had the means, interest, and commitment to sue us and win?  What might we do differently?”

Honestly, I think the entire school system would be revolutionized if every educator treated children and families with this notion of being sued (and losing the suit) in mind.  But this isn’t not about fear, it’s about service and responsibility.  It’s about honoring our commitment to families even if they don’t know how much they can expect of us.

Let’s imagine something for a moment.  There is a Black father, Randy, who struggles to maintain employment. He was born and raised in an urban area. He moves outside of the city and hopes for a safer school for his children. Randy is not certified in special education. He does not know his parental rights; nor does he know what to ask or demand. He is 27-years-old and has a 5-year old son.  Randy did not finish high school, nor did his father or his grandfather.

Imagine Randy at an IEP meeting, sitting at a conference table with 5 educators, all women — 4 of them White. Imagine his nervousness as he tries to simply follow the conversation.  Imagine that this father feels as lost as if he were in a dark, windowless room in the middle of the desert, this father who is at the school and who wants to offer his son more than he had.

When you read about Randy, what do you feel?  Compassion? Empathy? Disgust?  What do you think?  Are you judging him for not knowing? Blaming him for his ignorance? Are you thinking about the father’s responsibility or about your own responsibility as an educator? Are you wanting to do something? Do nothing? What are you noticing about your own thoughts and assumptions?

If your thoughts could be transformed into actions, and you were the son’s teacher, principal, or superintendent, what might that 5-year-old child be experiencing?  Love?  Disdain?  Impatience?  Understanding?  Prejudice? And in what direction might those actions propel the child?  Toward shame or success?  Healing or humiliation?

To be clear, I am not saying that Randy is void of strengths or that we need to pity him.  In fact, Randy is resilient, courageous, and visionary.  He is also yet another Black father who isn’t receiving the best customer service from his son’s school.

There are folks out there who say that special education is the pipeline to prison.  I believe them, especially for Black boys from lower income backgrounds whose parents have no experience navigating the nuances of special education.

Black boys, education, and prison –it’s really an embarrassment to this country.  The thing is, to change what is happening with Black boys we need training and coaching and frameworks for sure.

We also need to develop a deeper empathy for those experiencing oppression in their everyday experience, simply because they are Black and male and live in America, even when that experience is not our own.


  1. In this, my 11th year teaching middle school in the Bronx, I am more frustrated than ever. I am considering a sabbatical next year for self care.

    I advocate for the students daily and fight against the DOE machine that does not have the students’ best interest at the forefront (no matter how many PD’S they go to). I am tired.

    Then I read Ms. Seaton’s article and realize I have to stay. I stay to support the students, parents like Randy, and ultimately our community. Black boys, education, and prison are connected like a dna chain. The over identification of Black boys in special education is real. The points made on how to begin to address the problem are spot on. Most administrators who hire don’t listen.
    It is my prayer that this article is shared 1 million times; the more who read it the higher the possibility of effecting change.

    • Thanks for reading, sharing, and commenting. I agree, Dr. Seaton provides some great analysis and next steps. I know your community will be very grateful for your continued leadership and partnership. It wont be easy, but, as you clearly stated, your students need your advocacy. Once my mentor told a group of us, “if you walk out and slam the door shut, it is ultimately, your decision, but remember there are students who look like you who will be trapped in.” And, I am sure you deserve a sabbatical too-just be sure to come back! Thanks!

    • Carol, thank you so much for your commentary and for your commitment to education. As a former principal, I am acutely aware of the ways in which my doctoral program did and did not prepare me to be a principal. Nor did the additional classes I took for certification. In many instances, school leaders are ill prepared for what it required of the work. And it is rare for principals to have a coach to support their development in the field. It is my hope that school leaders will listen to the most unheard voices (through articles like this one) and make the necessary adjustments to be transformative in their work.


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