The state says Evanston/Skokie School District 65 has labeled too many Black students as having an emotional disability, and the district will have to spend what could be around $300,000 to help remedy the situation.
In a notice to the district, the Special Education Department of the Illinois State Board of Education says District 65 has exceeded the threshold “for significant disproportionality for three consecutive years.”
“Emotional disability” is one of more than half a dozen potential special ed placements for school children, such as learning disabled or speech/language issues.
While just 63 students in the district are said to have emotional disabilities, 30 — nearly half — of those students are Black, while only 23.4% of the district’s students are Black.
“It’s not just a District 65 issue,” says Romy DeCristofaro, District 65’s assistant superintendent for student affairs.
The percentage of Black students in special education nationwide is often higher than their share of the population, she added.
The State Board of Education says that in Illinois, Black students with disabilities are “1.8 times as likely to be identified as a child with an emotional disturbance as all other children.”
“I do think it’s a big deal,” DeCristofaro says.
“This is a district committed to racial equity,” and while no district wants to be called on the carpet by the state, DeCristofaro says “I appreciate the opportunity to spotlight this concern,” and what District 65 is trying to do about it.
To reduce disproportionality, District 65 will have to get the percentage of emotionally disabled Black students down closer to the overall percentage of all Black children in the system.
But how? Children are assigned to special education programs with the goal of helping, not stigmatizing them.
“We want to very much make sure that students are getting the support they need,” DeCristofaro says. “We are legally obligated to provide services.”
But at the same time, even well-intentioned educators might improperly diagnose some Black children as having emotional disabilities based on the educator’s preconceived notions.
A study by New York University concludes that special education assessment and placement is often “highly subjective” for students of color.
“Cultural dissonance, ” DeCrostofaro calls it.
Educating the evaluators to be more culturally responsive is one tool, not just for assessing emotional disabilities but also other special education categories.
As part of the state notice, District 65 has to set aside 15% of one particular federal aid category for early intervention, to try to prevent children from needing special ed in the first place, and from being labled with a disability.
District 65 has no leeway. Three disproportionate years in a row automatically triggers the 15% spending under federal law, no matter the number of children.
That 15%, DeCristorfaro says, could work out to around $300,000, for services such as student intervention, data analysis, teaching materials and staff development.
Then there’s another issue. However many students are in special education (around 1,000 in District 65, or 14% of total enrollment), they need teachers, and there’s a definite shortage of special ed professionals, nationwide and in Evanston.
District 65 is currently looking for 2.5 special education teachers, two social work openings and at least five paraprofessional slots.
DeCristofaro says, “We have really had to expand our recruitment efforts and shift staffing internally.”
“I feel blessed to have the hard-working teachers and aides that work in the district,” she adds.
The hope is that further recruitment will bring more staff for 2022-23.
DeCristofaro says the overall count of District 65 students with emotional disabilities decreased between 2019-20 and 2020-21, which, she sees as progress.
The goal, she adds, is to continue that trend, and work especially hard on the racial discrepancies.
“It’s important,” DeCristofaro says. “I want to acknowledge the committment.”