Racial bias in Special Education Evaluations

As we’ve been focusing more on equity and race I’ve started to notice various implicit biases in special education documents. I’m not the only person who notices things as I’ve had many discussions with other professionals about these examples. Recently I noticed one item in evaluations that might seem pretty trivial in one regard, but in another regard shows how teachers and school professionals can “profile” students the same way a police officer, judge, or any other white person in a position of authority might.

The opening narrative of the evaluation report is supposed to contain background information, historical/file review, and a specific reason for referral for special education. What I noticed is that 71% of the black/AA male students in our program are identified by race in the very first sentence of that section. It reads, for example, “Ben is an African American 10th grader at _________ High School.” It might seem trivial, but it’s not protocol. 20% of our black/AA females are identified by race in that first sentence. 0% of all our non-black/AA students with IEPs are identified by race in that sentence. You just will never read, “Suzy is a white girl in 9th grade at ___ High.” But they do say “Billy is an African American male 10th grader at ___.” I see it in eval reports from at least 5 seperate districts and I wouldn’t doubt if it’s in some 287 evaluations. I wouldn’t even doubt if I have written it myself in the past. The question is, why? Again, it’s not protocol. Why are we marking black male students in this sentence? What are we signaling to other educators? I don’t think the authors of these evaluation reports are overt racists. Yet, they are performing an act of racial profiling.


Several studies indicate that this is a systematic bias problem, not a “white person in a position of authority” problem. Harvard’s “Implicit” studies, the gender and race resume / CV studies, indicate that everyone (whatever gender, race, etc.) is impacted by systematic biases subconsciously.

As to your broader point, I think it communicates that the “African American male” information is “relevant”, in a way that it is not for those not in that category… whatever relevant might mean (good or bad).

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Thank you, I didn’t mean to suggest that only white people in positions of authority have implicit biases. But it’s a special problem among whites in positions of authority because when we profile youths that can have special consequences. There are little to no consequences for me if a student profiles me. There are potentially devastating consequences for a child if his teachers, a judge, or the local police profile him.

This is helpful, part of Strategy 2’s mission is to also work with our member districts on these issues. If these students are being referred to us by our members then it’s something we’ll also want to share with them in their own writing procedures and review when creating their evaluation reports.

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Yes I thought that this information could be useful. I wonder if there would be someone with time to look at this on a wider scale. My 71% number is from a small sample. Worth mentioning, too, that special education students in the ALC are not typically referrals but just enroll by choice, or come in through an ALC-Plus referral. I’ve seen variations of “Johnny is a black male” in the first sentence of the evaluation coming from both member- and non-member districts.

Should have updated you here when I started spreading the word. There is a team (at a much higher level than I) now looking into this and will be evaluating our own practices and digging much deeper into this districtwide. Some things happen very quickly around here. Thanks for sharing the post.

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Nothing to add, really. Just wanted to say that this is great stuff to shine a light on. Nice sleuthing, Ben. And nice spreading the info, Jon.

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First off, I know additional posts have been made on this topic. However, I actually was in the forum minutes after Ben made the original post and I wanted to take some time to process my own thoughts on this topic. So what I have here primarily is a reply to the original.

Again, I know additional comments have been made since but the following is my reflection to Ben’s original post:

Ben, I appreciate you taking a moment to reflect on how our words may impact others. I have worked with you for many years and value the impact you have made with EdReady, SCRUM, and other innovation work. So I know you are passionate, vocal, and influential in creating opportunities for students to succeed. I also want to extend an opportunity to you and the community to further reflect on the research you shared.

  1. By placing Wayzata’s name in there, and not the other districts, it singles them out. If this was not the intent, then an identifier should have been removed. It is a concern for me because it begins to imply that they are doing something wrong and/or racially profiling students.

  2. While I appreciate the effort to seek out data, I am concerned that specific numbers from other districts are being publicized before we look at our own data. I feel we should first work to address the practices of our own district - lead by example. I know you indicate that you feel that it is in some of our own, I would hope that the same effort would have been taken to investigate our own as well during this time. So I personally doubt that we have the data and that you have until those numbers have been run.

  1. It may not be expected, doesn’t mean that this practice cannot be done. While I believe I understand the intentions of what you mean, I would think we should clarify WHAT is the protocol.

  2. If we are questioning why it is in there. . . well, if there is a reason, keep it in. If there isn’t take it out. It might actually be relevant.

  3. What if this information is important? To the student? To the team? To the context? Example, for the IEP team, we are encouraged to include anyone that may be knowledgeable about the student. Someone may feel this information will guide better support for the student. Again, this is an example of why and not a reason to prevent a conversation on impact in general, not specific to race.

  1. So the authors are covert racists? I would not be able to say if anyone is at any level of meeting this based on such limited amount of information. It seems a tad bit like labeling.

  2. Racial Profiling? Are the authors of these evaluations targeting students for a specific reason or more importantly, a crime? For the same reason above, I personally am not in a place to believe nor would I connect any of these authors to racism nor racial profiling. We need to be cautious of our uses these terms, broadening the definition beyond the scope it was intended. (ACLU definition)

I think it’s great that you took the time time look into this and offer this up for discussion and reflection. I also think it is important for our district, and invite our members, to always consider and have conversations on the larger impact our words may have on students. All which is being done through the the valuable work of our Strategy 2 team. Again, I caution against assuming any level of intent and connecting people to specific behaviors. Especially with limited information. If we are talking about equity, wouldn’t it be just as important to be equitable in how the concern is addressed as well?

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Thanks, Scott, for joining in the conversation. I truly appreciate you for being willing to confront things that don’t sit well with you, and trying to make sure that when we look at these issues we do it in a way that is cautious, balanced, and wanting to make sure we have our own house in order before we point fingers at others. I benefit from that perspective because I am definitely a person who tends to “run with things” intellectually and it helps when somebody gives me pause. One thing I do want to clarify is that I looked at the most recent eval for all our NECA sped students, whether that was done internally in 287 or in another district. I didn’t solely look at other districts. Here are some thoughts I have .

I understand your concern here and that is why I pulled the video/slideshow down with the data I originally found. I’m not sure if you saw that - you might have been the only person since you said you saw my post early. I’ll defer to your concern here and strike the districts I named.

This is the whole reason I made the post, so that we would look at it. It sounds like that’s where Jon took it which is what I hoped might happen. I don’t think that I shared specific numbers from any other specific districts. I looked at numbers from all NECA students who are currently on IEPs. They come from a whole bunch of districts. It’s just a sample of data that doesn’t represent any specific district. Too small a sample to draw any conclusions, yes, but enough of a sample to ask questions. I mulled over the information for several days and discussed it with at least 4 or 5 colleagues before making the post. This is certainly a hot-potato, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to discuss it on the public forum. We should collect more data and focus on our own practice before making decisions/judgments about others, yes, but I don’t think we need to demonstrate that we’re perfect, or we have all our ducks in a row, prior to discussing it publicly here.

Please trust that I have made this effort to look back at my own stuff. I don’t have past files on all my past students. Yesterday I did find that I have done this at least once. I am searching my soul for the why. It wasn’t a conscious team decision or based on the student’s input. I know that. I think it shows that I carry some racial bias, that I am subject to the same human and cultural characteristics that result in bias, and that If I don’t actively work to counter it I might profile students. I can tell you I’m never writing it in there again until someone convinces me that it’s protocol.

I don’t think this can be a “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” kind of thing. I’m not without sin and I don’t want to cast stones. I think it starts with lifting stones and shining a light underneath to see what’s there. I can see how a person would take exception to my undergoing that process on this forum, but as I thought about what to do with the information - the “Equity” category felt like a place to put it and see where it might go.

+1 on this.

I think this is where the meat of the conversation is and I really don’t have succinct thoughts to put in writing right now. In the end maybe I am making the same mistake I think I am seeing, in suggesting that profiling is happening and that it wasn’t a concientous IEP team decison to put that identifier there. In my professional experience on many IEP teams and in many evaluations, I have never had that conversation or witnessed it. I’ve never had a conversation in an IEP meeting or eval share about race. I’ve never asked a student if that’s an important part of their identification. I’ve never had another professional on the team talk about it. So I may be dead wrong and may be assuming, but I would conjecture that the majority of other IEP teams in the area are also not having that conversation.

I think that the old “if you assert X to be false, then you assert that the opposite of X must be true,” is a logical fallacy. I’m not declaring that they are covert racists, but I am suggesting that implicit racial biases are coloring their use of language in the eval. You’re right that I don’t have enough information to judge that these are all cases of racial profiling. I shouldn’t have written it as a statement of fact. If I could take it back I would ask whether this is indicative of racial profiling, rather than assert that it is happening.

I really appreciate you stating this. I don’t think I’ve attached any specific people to specific behaviors, though. I did attach a specific school but it is a massive school and I gave no information on when an eval was done or who did it, and I made sure to state that several other large school districts demonstrated the same behavior. Your concern has caused me to rethink and I’ve removed the school/district names from the above posts.

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Perhaps it was unwise to use the term ‘racial profiling’ given it’s specific historical and legal context. Replacing the word “profiling” with “bias” in the topic title.

To me, the idea behind all of this is to ensure that we are checking any implicit biases. As Scott says, if there is not a reason to keep it in than we should take it out.

What I don’t want to see is that someone reading an incoming student’s IEP draws conclusions from a detail that isn’t relevant to a determination of Special Ed. eligibility.

As the district works to review all of our policies through a racial lens, I’m hoping that we can make sure what we’re doing doesn’t promote these implicit biases that some writers/readers might have. In our Strategy 2 meetings, we often speak about not just eliminating these kinds of practices but making an effort to be mindfully anti-racist.

I don’t think the authors of these evaluations are racist, I just think that for some reason, they think that it really is relevant when most likely, it is not. It reminds me of a CPI training I was in at another school district maybe 15 years or so ago. The trainer said something about a student who was a large black male and it struck me like a slap and I just had to stop and ask why did it matter if the student was black. It was awful to see that his perception of race tied to an increased level of fear.

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We have also changed our board mini reports so they now include race by program, and this certainly highlights the disparities that exist.

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