Black and Hispanic children who misbehave are treated far differently than white children in some Schenectady classrooms, the federal Office for Civil Rights said Wednesday.
The office, part of the federal Department of Education, was called in to investigate claims non-white Schenectady children were not given the same opportunities in school as white children.
Read the school's agreement with the Department of Education on the Capital Region Scene blog
Investigators found 14 teachers who treated non-white children more harshly than white children by referring them to a special support team.
That referral is the first step in removing a child from the classroom and sending them to special education. There, Schenectady students tend to never catch up academically with their peers.
Assistant Secretary of Education Catherine Lhamon praised the district for working with the Office of Civil Rights to address the issue.
“And, we hope that other school districts follow the district’s lead and take steps to ensure that students are not misidentified as having a disability and misplaced in special education because of their race or national origin,” she said.
Superintendent Laurence Spring has said since his arrival that he was worried by the high percentage of non-white students sent to special education. He told the Office of Civil Rights that he would agree to a series of changes, rather than requiring the agency to fully investigate every claim.
But the office had already found serious problems. In one case, a teacher sent a black student to the support team for misbehavior after he committed one minor altercation, for which he was suspended. The teacher did not send a white student to the team, even though he had committed similar offenses on six occasions — including one offense that was the same as the one for which the black student was suspended.
In another case, a teacher who had a number of misbehaving students referred only black and Hispanic students for their behavior. The agency found the Hispanic student who was referred had five disciplinary infractions, while one white student had 10 infractions and another white student had 11 infractions, all for the same types of misbehavior as the Hispanic student. Yet the white students were not referred.
Another teacher referred a black student after one minor infraction, while not referring a white student with the same infraction, the agency reported.
In another case, investigators said a teacher referred a black student after one incident of disrespectful language, but did not refer a white student who was also disciplined for disrespectful language.
Spring said teachers weren’t consciously treating non-white students differently. But, he said, some teachers found the white students’ behavior easier to manage.
“We have an awful lot of staff members who grew up white and middle class,” he said, suggesting the behavior of some poor, non-white students might be seen differently in the light of a middle-class background.
He added that he thought teachers were trying to reach those students, but they need more techniques and tools.
“On one level, kids get referred to special education because people get frustrated and they don’t know what to do,” he said. “It’s, ‘If I knew what to do, I’d be doing it!’ ”
Still, the Office of Civil Rights found indications of more than just frustration. In some cases, teachers seemed to refer students without a good reason.
One teacher referred a Hispanic student for academic problems even though the student scored at or above grade level on every subject except writing, in which the student was slightly below grade level, according to the agency.
The agency also noted two white students in the same class who scored slightly below grade level in writing and math were not referred. The teacher also didn’t refer a white student who scored far below grade level on reading. That teacher also referred a black student for behavior although there were no discipline records to substantiate the claim, the agency reported.
Investigators questioned some teachers about their referrals. They located a teacher who had referred three non-white students for fidgeting, distractibility and general misbehavior, while not referring three white students who did the same things. They reported the teacher defended the white students, saying one was a “good kid,” the second “only had homework issues,” and the third was “very distractible,” but “not to the level that would have warranted referral.”
Investigators noted in the report the white children in question had disciplinary infractions and grades of “unsatisfactory” and “inconsistent” in behavior and attitude.
Investigators relied heavily on student progress reports to determine whether teachers treated their students fairly. In one case, investigators said a teacher wrote in progress reports to each of her white students that they were a “joy” to have in class. None of the black students were described that way in their progress reports, the agency reported.
That teacher also referred a black student who was at grade level in all her classes and had no disciplinary record. But she did not refer a white student who was below grade level in effort and writing and who was told in a progress report that she had to control her talking and keep her hands to herself.
Similarly, the agency said another teacher referred two black students for being easily distracted, but did not refer a white student despite describing the student on progress reports as having “tremendous difficulty staying focused.”
That happened in several classrooms, the agency reported. In each case, the distracted black students were referred, but the white students were not.
Now the challenge is to change that. Spring said the district is tracking referrals to make sure non-white students aren’t singled out. Since officials started tracking, he’s seen some improvement.
“We’re still seeing some disproportionality, but on a smaller scale,” he said.
He’s also seen improvements due to better training in classroom management.
“It’s going better. We still have a lot more work to do,” he said.
He agreed to make a number of other changes in response to the Office of Civil Rights investigation. The district will create a universal screening program to identify students who need extra help. The district will also develop policies on exactly what circumstances would lead to a student being referred outside the universal screening program.
But the biggest changes will involve the special help teams that are supposed to develop in-classroom interventions so a student does not have to be moved to special education. Investigators found many of those teams did not check to see whether their interventions worked and did not pass on instructions to the next year’s teacher.
Some teachers also told investigators they didn’t keep track of the interventions they were supposed to be doing with the students, and some said they didn’t have time to do the interventions. But the investigators noted teachers at predominantly white schools in the district did not have the same complaint.
The agreement with the Office of Civil Rights also requires the district to train its teachers on the difference between disabilities and other causes of behavior or academic problems. Other causes should be dealt with through other interventions, rather than sending that child to special education.
By Nov. 29, the district will review every student in special education to determine whether they should have been placed there. Students who shouldn’t have gone to special education must be given remedial services during this school year to address any deficits caused by their placement.
The district will also start testing students for disabilities in their own language. The Office of Civil Rights found students who primarily speak a foreign language have been classified as having language disabilities when they might just have trouble understanding English.