Examining the connection between the referral process and the disproportionate identification of African American students having an emotional disturbance in special education



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Historically, African American students have been overrepresented in special education (NEA, 2007. Specifically, African American students have been identified with an emotional disturbance (ED) in special education at an excessive rate in comparison to students of other racial and ethnic categories (OSEP, 2021). State and federal education and human rights agencies have studied and monitored this discrepancy; however they have not been successful at alleviating disproportionality in special education (Ferri & Connor, 2005; Garvey; 2018; NEA, 2007; Samuels, 2005; U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2013). Proposals for understanding why this disproportionality exists include the examination of various educational and societal factors (Hutchison, 2018; Moreno & Bullock, 2011; Rausch & Skiba, 2004; Serwatka et al., 1995; Skiba et al., 2003; Sullivan & Proctor, 2016; Tefera & Fischman, 2020). This study explored the linkage between the special education referral process and disproportionality in identifying African American students as emotionally disturbed. Data was collected and analyzed using the Grounded Theory approach through the examination of special education evaluations and general and special education educator narratives. This study found that cultural and lifestyle factors influence behaviors and behavioral expectations, and in turn those factors lead to behavioral disruptions that increase the likelihood of African American students being identified as ED.



Emotional disturbance, Special education, Trauma, African American students, Adverse childhood experiences, Emotional and behavioral disorders