Transcription of the episode “Systemic racism in special education: Parent participation legitimizes inequities”

Jon M: [00:00:15] I’m Jon Moscow. 

Amy H-L: [00:00:16] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Today, we continue our conversation with Dr. LaToya Baldwin Clark, assistant professor at UCLA School of Law, where she writes about race, parenting, and educational stratification. Dr. Baldwin Clark earned a BS in economics from the Wharton School, an MA in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, a PhD in sociology from Stanford and her JD from Stanford Law School.

This is the second of a two part interview. Last week, we discussed equity in schools from an educational law perspective. Today, we’ll focus on special education. Welcome back, LaToya. 

 LaToya B C: [00:00:58] Thank you for having me.

Jon M: [00:01:00] In your article, Beyond Bias: Cultural Capital and Anti-Discrimination Law, you discuss racial disproportionality in special education. Would you talk about that?

 LaToya B C: [00:01:11] Sure. So by racial disproportionality, I mean that there are certain categories under which children are labeled or designated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. By disproportionality, I mean that there are some racial groups that are over or under represented compared to a percentage of their school population in public schools in general. They’re over or under represented in those categories. And one of the things that I look at in particular are differences between what we would call more stigmatized labels and less stigmatized labels. 

Amy H-L: [00:01:54] Last week, we discussed how middle-class white children tend to benefit from cultural capital, especially in the form of parental involvement. What does this look like in special education? 

 LaToya B C: [00:02:06] So special education is a very complex set of laws, practices, and norms that were created in order to make sure that children with disabilities would be educated within the public schools. Prior to the IDEA, it was not illegal, really, to discriminate against children being able to be educated alongside with their, we might say, neurotypical peers or peers that do not have disabilities. What’s interesting though about the IDEA is the level at which it can require parental advocacy. So every child should get, under the IDEA, a free, appropriate public education. If you are a child with a disability, that is what your entitlement is. However, actually getting to the substance of that entitlement requires parents to go through a litany of procedural hurdles in order to get to that final product. And what I show is that the act of advocating for your child itself requires a certain amount of cultural capital in order to be an effective advocate for that child. You can think of this as if you were a lawyer and in order to be an effective advocate for your clients you need to know something. You need to know, not just the law, but how do I use the law in ways that are going to be beneficial to my client? And that’s exactly what has to happen in special education. There needs to be a good working knowledge of how the law works, not just what the law is, but how it works in your school district and what are the different behavioral strategies you need to use in order to achieve that free, appropriate public education to which your child is entitled.

Jon M: [00:03:55] So how do white middle-class parents acquire this cultural capital about using the IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, strategically to secure resources for their children? 

 LaToya B C: [00:04:11] Well, one thing to note about cultural capital is that it’s also very much connected to economic capital. So people’s income and their wealth, as well as their social capital. So the extent to which they are embedded in social networks that allow them to have access to resources that they don’t have just on their own cultural capital is a part of that collection of different resources and capital that parents need.

So, how was it that white middle-class parents come to have more of this cultural capital than,say, non white middle-class parents, as well as working class and poor parents, probably of all races? Well, it’s because of how white middle-class parents are embedded in schools. So white middle-class parents, I don’t know the last time you have been to a PTA meeting, but in my community, PTA meetings are full of white women, right, for a number of different reasons. Well being a part of the PTA actually gets you a lot of resources. You know how the school works, you know who you have to talk to in order to get this, in order to get that. And those are the same types of processes that are happening for white middle class parents when it comes to special education. So one is a working knowledge of the school, knowing who to go talk to, knowing who not to go talk to, and actually feeling comfortable and empowered to make those types of moves.

The other thing is closely connected to social capital, which is that parents create these social networks where they share information. So this in a way goes back, if you think about the PTA. I’ve sat in on PTA meetings and I’ve been amazed by how much information you can learn by being in the PTA. Well, similar types of networks exist for parents of children with disabilities, they’re able to talk to one another. If you’re in a community, you know what doctor that you should not go to and doctors that you should go to in order to get your desired label, you know, who has the best occupational services, who has the best speech services. Who is it, “oh, I found that it was really helpful to go talk to this person at the district.” Okay. Now I know I should go and talk to that person in the district. And so it’s really about how wealth and how race work together in order to provide resources, in order to create social networks. And in order to give people the cultural know-how of how a school works for their particular child. And those are resources that are not really open for non-white, non middle-class parents.

Jon M: [00:06:41] You argue that “parental participation fails to protect Black children from segregation in special education placements.” Can you talk about this? 

 LaToya B C: [00:06:52] So one of the things that’s also interesting about special education is the differential resources that go to children on the basis of what their disability label happens to be. Now, the IDEA requires labeling only for an administrative purpose. We want to know how many children are being categorized as having autism or having ADHD. But those labels are not actually required for children to get services. All the services that children should get should be on an individualized basis called the Individualized Education Plan. It’s not based on a diagnosis. It’s based on what it is that children need. But in reality, those diagnoses are very much correlated with how much money and how many resources are available to parents.

Now one thing also to note about the IDEA is that these decisions on what resources should go towards any particular child should be done without thinking about costs. But of course that doesn’t work in public schools. There’s nothing that happens in a public school that doesn’t have costs associated with it in one way or another. And so what happens here is that even though these are supposed to be individualized plans that are made regardless of how much they cost, that’s not how it works in the ground. Schools do have fixed amount of resources in order to provide for children with disabilities. And what ends up happening is that a parent who was better able to tell schools, “this is the resource that I want,” and again, they know this because of their economic capital, their social capital, and their cultural capital, are able to capture more of the pot of money, right. And so what I said when I’m thinking about participation, I want to really kind of put out there that it’s not just participation in this abstract sense. There’s a certain type of participation that is required. And it is that type of participation that is usually not available again to non-white, non-middle class parents.

Jon M: [00:08:59] So you say, following up on that, you said that the very process of mandated parental participation exacerbates, legitimizes the racial inequities that parental participation was meant to lesson. Please explain that.

 LaToya B C: [00:09:13] Sure. So this is a difference where lawyers would talk about the difference between procedural justice and substantive justice. Procedural justice means that as long as we go through the procedures, as long as we do all of the things that the law tells us to do, then we should get to the outcome. Generally, we believe the substantive  justice will occur as long as you have procedural justice. And the IDEA is actually premised on exactly that idea. When the Supreme Court first looked at the IDEA as to what it gave children, It believed that as long as the procedural rules are followed, the procedural rules that Congress put out, are followed for each child, then we will presume that that child has actually gotten the substance of what the law requires. And though in this way though, what I, what I try to show is that procedure is not enough. The procedure is not actually getting every child what they need. The procedure is being manipulated. And when I say manipulated, let me be very clear that I do believe the parents are doing exactly what the law tells them to do and exactly what any of us would do for our child. So I’m not making a judgment on the white middle-class parents who are using the procedure to their benefit, but more I’m saying is that the procedure alone, just knowing the law, knowing what papers to sign, knowing, uh, what day your IEP meeting is on is not the same as getting you to substantive justice even if you have nominal procedural justice.

Jon M: [00:10:51] When I read this, it struck me because I’ve been involved in a number of IEP meetings and so on. It struck me as just this really important point, because what I hear you saying is that, for example, for black low-income parents, parents who don’t have the cultural capital, the social capital, that because the law is relying on parental participation to be the major or a major means of ensuring a good, fair outcome. But if, in fact, the parent can’t, one parent and 11 professionals, and they’re all saying all these things and the parent’s sitting there, you know, and her, his child’s life is at stake in many ways, that if the parent can’t use the system effectively, but then when they walk out, everyone says, “Oh, okay. That was a very good IEP meeting. She got to speak, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” So you’re saying what this does is it actually gives a stamp of approval, possibly even in the parent’s mind, although that would vary from parent to parent. But what was meant to be a safeguard actually is a negative factor. Is that what you’re saying?

 LaToya B C: [00:12:13] Yes.That is exactly what I’m saying. I think you made a very good point of thinking about, for example, what actually happens in an IEP meeting, right? So what we want to happen in an IEP meeting is that we have everyone who has some stake in that child’s life. The parent is very important. The general education teacher, the special education teacher, the person who gives services here, et cetera, and that those people all sit around a table together, right, equally respected for the things that they bring to the situation, and come up with a plan that works for everyone, and particularly that works for their child. But what we often see, Jon, is exactly what you showed, is that there will be a lone parent sitting in a room with ten other professionals and experts, and that parent is made to feel as though, well, they don’t know as much as all the rest of these people, and, maybe that their input or what they want to say about their child, they can say it, it’s available to be said, but it doesn’t mean that it’s actually going to be considered. Many times schools will come to IEP meetings with the IEP already written out. That’s not a collaborative process where it’s supposed to be a collaborative process, but like you said, Jon, what they’ll come out of the meeting and say, “Well, okay, they had an ability to speak. They were able to say what it is that they wanted to say,” but that’s not meaningful participation, right. That’s just a basic amount of participation and that’s all the procedural rules really require. They require that a parent gets notice. They require a parent knows what’s happening to their child beforehand. They require a parent to be present in the meetings. But there’s not a lot of good things, I would say, in the IDEA that really talks about what that meaningful participation would look like.

Amy H-L: [00:14:01] What is the racial breakdown of children being placed in more and less restrictive special education environments, right, on a national level.

 LaToya B C: [00:14:12] Um, one of the things that the specific categories I look at in the paper that Jon mentioned are the categories of autism compared to categories of intellectual disability, and also emotional disturbance. And on a national level, we see vast differences. So white boys are much more likely to be characterized as living with autism whereas Black boys are much more likely to be characterized as having an intellectual disability or an emotional disturbance. Well, the reason that that’s really interesting is that if you look at the definitions that underlie those on categories, you can see that they’re very easily, you could put a child in one category or the other for very similar types of behaviors. And so the problem then that I see is that children with autism, again, on a national level, tend to get more resources than children who are being categorized as having an intellectual disability or having an emotional disturbance. And that’s a problem, again, going to the resource question that we were just talking about.

And so what does that mean? It means that on a national level that Black boys are less likely to get the resources that they need to be in school than are white boys who are being categorized with autism. And we can see, you know, what is the impact of that? Well, one of the impacts is that is children who are categorized as having an intellectual disability or having an emotional disturbance are much less likely to graduate from high school, much more likely to be incarcerated or in the prison and jail system, much more likely to not be employed. And so there are very real world consequences for these children as they become adults given this disparity in who is placed into certain categories.

I do want to say, however, that I’m talking on a national level. So that’s what it looks like nationally. It does turn out to be different in different jurisdictions. Well, what I would argue and what I would hypothesize is that in those jurisdictions, you will still find the differences between what are the stigmatized disability labels as being applied to Black children and whether the unstigmatized, or less stigmatized categories are being attributed to white boys. And that’s simply because we know how Black and white children are treated in schools. It’s no different in the special education arena, but it might not necessarily be autism versus emotional disturbance. It could be some other thing. Let’s say ADHD versus intellectual disability, the categories might change. But I would argue that the resources and the process by which those resources are distributed would be similar to what I talk about in that article.

Jon M: [00:17:09] So you were just talking in terms of categories like autism or intellectual disability, but I was also struck in reading your article by a chart that you had on the risk ratio for special education placements and, you know, one of the things that struck me, especially because, as you know, one of the things that happens is that schools have to fill out forms saying what percentage of time a child is in a general ed classroom because their funding depends on that. And one of your sentences is “They’re also [they meaning Black children], are also less likely than non-Black children to be in a general education classroom for more than 80% of the school day, with only native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders having lower likelihood to be in the general ed classroom more than 80% of the day.” Can you talk about some of what you were just saying, but in terms of what that means for time the children are segregated essentially, physically segregated?

 LaToya B C: [00:18:08] Right. And that’s exactly the point about how children are being physically segregated within schools and also sometimes among schools. So in our school district, in Culver cCty, there are children who have disabilities all over the school district. Well, one of our schools has more of what we call day classes, where children who have disabilities are all segregated into one classroom by themselves without having any connection or interaction with children who are in what we call the “general education” classrooms. And so you can imagine what happens when you segregate children on the basis of their disability. Now in some cases it’s required. There are some children who require being, not in the general education classroom in order to receive the free, appropriate public education to which they are entitled. But it is mostly not the case for most children with disabilities. This is where, if you understand, people are talking now about the inclusion model. And we know that the reason people are pushing for inclusion, which means that we want more children with disabilities to be in that category of spending at least 80% of their day in the general education classroom, is because we know that segregation on the basis of stigmatized identities is not a good thing. We don’t want all children with disabilities to be in a classroom all by themselves because it sends a message as to what is it that we think and believe of children who have disabilities. But what we find is that Black children, no matter what their disability categorization is, tend to spend less time in the general education classroom than white children. Again, no matter what their disability indication and disability labeling is. And so special education could also be used as a way of racial segregation within schools. And that’s interesting, at least to me, because the IDEA was created in order to stop discrimination against children in the public schools. But now it is also one of the ways in which children are being discriminated against within the public schools.

Amy H-L: [00:20:22] And I guess that also carries over into suspensions. 

 LaToya B C: [00:20:26] Yes, for sure. And one of the things you can imagine is that when children are labeled with having an emotional disturbance or intellectual disability, many times those children are thought to be uneducatable such that when they act out or they do things that are against the rules, they’re going to be more likely to be suspended or expelled because of those behaviors.

Now the IDEA does have a stopgap for this. It doesn’t work very well, but there’s a stopgap that says if a child’s behaviors that would have otherwise gotten them disciplined, suspended, or expelled, if those behaviors, are as a result of their disability, schools need to go through an additional process before they’re able to suspend or expel that child, and if it is found to be a reason because of their disability, then the schools then have an obligation in order to provide that child with resources that are appropriate to their needs before they’re able to suspend or expel them.

In actuality, it doesn’t always work that way. Savvy parents know that that is the process that needs to happen before their child gets suspended or expelled. But again, you’re going to have these, the societal differences between us and resources are going to find their way into the school house as well.

Amy H-L: [00:21:53] What would you recommend to change all this?

 LaToya B C: [00:21:55] In the article, I make a few recommendations. So the first is to think about whether there can be someone at the school district level that is an advocate for parents. So, although they are hired by the school district, they have a particular role to be independent of the school district, that they oversee all of the different IEPs that are out there, all of the different ways in which students are being categorized, pushed into classrooms, et cetera. And it’s their job to notice these thingst, to bring them to the attention of the school district and then to help parents advocate for themselves in order to reduce some of the disparities that we see.

I also think if, you know, there is a large practice of special education lawyers, and then they have their own practices. They are very much in demand. What’s bringing lawyers into the situation, though, is a way in which individual parents are then advocating for individual children and using individual lawyers.

One of the ways I think that could be very helpful is if we could really create a lawyering culture of advocating on behalf of all children in a school or in a school district. So that lawyer wouldn’t just be acting on behalf of one parent and one child. It would be with the understanding that lawyers are going to come into the process in order to advocate for all children, in order to make sure that the law is being followed for every child, in order to make sure that every parent is having meaningful participation.

I will say, I tend to be more on the pessimistic side. And we talked about this last week as well, as far as the efficacy of some of these reforms. But I do think that there are things that we can do to make things better, and I think it’s worth doing those things. And you know, if it also causes other inequalities, well, then we’ll come to those other inequalities when we get there, it shouldn’t stop us from doing the small things perhaps that we can do now to make life better for, you know, hundreds of millions of children.

Jon M: [00:24:12] 0I just wanted to go back for just a second to talking about the suspension question, because I know that, and again, a lot of my experience has been in New York State where there’s been a lot of focus on, especially the disproportional suspension of Black boys/young men. But increasingly also, even though the numbers are lower, of Black girls and young women. And I know the Metropolitan Center had a contract with New York State. It was called TAC-D, I think, which was specifically to train school districts in how to reduce this disproportionality. I’m not sure that it’s had a tremendous effect in terms of reducing the disproportionality. Do you have specific thoughts on why this is so resistant and what can be done about it, given that the, I would assume, that the districts would have an incentive to reduce it, if for no other reason than that they’re getting, you know, checked off by the state and that they’re being held accountable for reporting it? Plus of course, obviously in a lot of cases, they want to reduce the disproportionality just because it needs to be reduced. So what’s your sense of, of concrete things that could be done to reduce this? Do you have any thoughts on that? 

 LaToya B C: [00:25:39] I think that it’s an important issue and I appreciate you bringing up Black girls because I think Black girls get lost ino many of these conversations. And one of my colleagues at UCLA Law Kimberlé Crenshaw, writes about this a lot, about how girls are being left out of the conversation. Black girls are being left out of the conversation about being overpoliced in school. I think one of the reasons that this is difficult, if I have to hypothesize, and this is not necessarily my area, but if I have to hypothesize, I think that much of it is rooted in racial and gender stereotypes of who Black women are, who Black girls are, what their behaviors are, and perhaps a sense of really needing to step out of those stereotypes when we look at children. And I think changing those stereotypes or getting people to even acknowledge and look at those stereotypes, that the battle that we’re now fighting in all levels of how do we change how people think about our children think about our Black children, think about our Latinx children, think about our American Indian children, and get away from many of the stereotypes that have been applied to them. I think that the reason, I think that that is a issue or something that needs to be looked at is that oftentimes you will see that the types of behaviors for which Black girls are being disciplined are behaviors, such as being disrespectful, right, are these very gendered and racialized ways in which we talk about people. “Oh, you’re being disrespectful.” ” Oh, you are not following directions, ” in ways that are somewhat vague. What does it mean to be disrespectful? What do you mean? Are we looking at this respect from this child different from disrespect from that child?

Well, again, I’m just kind of spit balling here, but I do think that underlying a lot of this is to understand how ingrained many of these biases are, especially against Back girls. 

Amy H-L: [00:27:52] And we’ve seen instances in which black girls are sort of adultified., though they’re still  little girls. 

 LaToya B C: [00:28:00] Yes. Yes. Exactly. No, I think that’s exactly the truth.

I even found once on my own daughter, a report card that I had to fight, but there were so many words that have been, that were very much attributed to Black women and she was six years old. Um, and so this idea that, you know, we can say as a six year old, oh, she’s uncooperative. Well, what does that mean? As a six year old, I know many six year olds who are uncooperative. Um, but I also know that that wasn’t on other children’s report cards. And so yes, this idea that we, we look at, and this is for bBack children in general, but of course with Black girls is that people tend to see them as older than they really are.

Jon M: [00:28:42] Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you’d like to add?

 LaToya B C: [00:28:48] No, I do want to though reiterate pretty strongly, because I think that sometimes my work can be interpreted as if I am thinking that white middle-class parents are intentionally being or intentionally acting in a way that they know is taking resources away from other people’s children. And I really want to kind of push back on that. What I want to say is that there are ways in which being middle-class and white is a privilege that other people do not have access to, that privilege. And schools, it is the school’s job to mediate that process, right. So it’s the school’s job to make sure that middle-class white children are not getting more resources then non-white, non middle-class children. And so my critique is yes, one of the ways in which parenting culture comes into schools, but it’s also a critique of the system and the structure of race and class stratification in education that really concerns me.

Amy H-L: [00:29:51] So teachers are often educated in cultural competence and now, cultural humility. Is there some way that the parent body can be educated as well?

 LaToya B C: [00:30:06] Great, great point. One of the things that we are trying to do, and by we, I’m talking about Culver City, and especially in my child’s elementary school, is to really sit down and start educating parents directly about equity in schools and what equity in schools looks like, and this is yes, to educate parents who don’t necessarily have a lot of the cultural capital to advocate for their child, but also to show and teach white middle-class parents the ways in which their behaviors are leading to, however inadvertently, to resources being taken away from other people’s children. And I think that that’s incredibly important work to have happened because the parents who are making decisions, who are getting the ears of the school district, are the white middle class parents. And I want them to have the knowledge and the understanding of the ways in which equity is not being gathered in our schools, so that they too can be advocates and allies for nonwhite non middle-class children in their schools.

Especially if we are now saying as a nation that we want to be an anti-racist nation. Well, if we want to be an anti-racist nation, there is actually going to take a lot of work on the part of middle-class white folks to create this anti-racist society.

Amy H-L: [00:31:29] What would a program look like local level or, or nationally?

 LaToya B C: [00:31:33] Yeah. I am a huge supporter that all politics is local. I think that people need to be involved in the local things that are happening at a school level. What’s going to work at a school is not necessarily going to work at a district or the state or at a federal level. But I think at the school level, it requires a commitment. Right now we have a PTA commitment to equity and that everything that we do, and every dollar that we spend is going to be looked at through the lens of equity. And that goes to what programs are we providing for our children, how was our money being spent on curriculum, how is it that we’re helping parents to be informed about their choices, can we have a book club where we are teaching and learning, and facilitating conversations together.

So that’s what it looks like, I think, at a school level. And I think that that can be put up to a school district level, but again, I’m talking from my experience. Culver City is a relatively small school district. I’m not sure how that would really work in, let’s say an LAUSD, but I do think that it’s possible. I think you just have to, you have to have the will to make it happen.

Jon M: [00:32:46] Thank you, Dr. Baldwin Clark, UCLA School of Law.

 LaToya B C: [00:32:53] Thank you for having me.

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