Source: Atlanta Examiner

Since the inception of special education in 1975, advocates have been fighting for the fair and equal treatment of students with disabilities. While some wanted these students to receive an educational experience that was comparable to their non-disabled peers, others, such as Lloyd Dunn, wanted to ensure that all students with disabilities: were treated equitably; received disability labels that were non-discriminatory; and were educated in general education versus special education classrooms- a placement where the curriculum was often described as substandard and incapable prepping students for any creditable post-secondary opportunity.

Dunn advocated for these three initiatives because they were all at the foundation of a silent epidemic that was festering in special education programs all across the county- African American students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, were being disproportionately labeled as having emotional and behavior disorders and mental retardation. The rate at which these students were placed in these two categories outnumbered all other racial groups. In addition to being mislabeled, once placed in special education, many of these students were more likely to receive their instruction in special education classes away from their non-disabled peers. Dunn advocated for the fair treatment of minorities in special education a few years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate was inherently unequal” in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education (1954)- the landmark case that ended segregation in the nation’s public schools.


Since that time, the disproportionate number of African American students being labeled with emotional and behavior disorders and intellectual disabilities has remained unchanged. According to data from the 2009-2010 annual special education report compiled by the Georgia Department of Education, African American students continue to outnumber other subgroups of students in the categories of Emotional Behavioral Disorders (EBD) and Intellectual Disabilities. Additionally, African American students are more likely to be served in special education classes and residential placements more than their peers. A variety of reasons have been given for why over-identification of some students occurs— the most prevalent ones being (CEC, 2002):

  • Lack of access to effective instruction in general education programs;
  • Insufficient resources and less well trained teachers, making learning more difficult; 
  • Failure of the general education system to educate children from diverse backgrounds;
  • Inequities associated with special education referral and placement procedures; 
  • Misidentification and the misuse of tests.

The special education annual report also indicated that African American students accounted for 39 percent of the total special education population. However, they made up 47 percent of the students labeled as having emotional and behavior disorders and 57 percent of students with intellectual disabilities. These data show that African American students were disproportionately represented in these two areas. Hence, when compared to their presence in the overall population of students with disabilities, African American students were overrepresented in each of the specific populations of interest- students identified with emotional and behavioral disorders and intellectual disabilities. Despite these numbers, the proportionality of these students is not considered at-risk by the Georgia Department of Education until a 2.0 weighted risk ratio is reached.


When analyzing the racial representation by setting, the data demonstrates that African American students are more likely to receive their instruction in a special education classroom away from their non-disabled peers. They were more likely to be served in the general education classroom less than 40 percent of the school day, and least likely to be served in the general education classroom for more than 80 percent of the school day.

Data reported by the Georgia Department of Education demonstrates that this silent epidemic is also plaguing many of the metro Atlanta school districts. In some district the disproportionate number of African American students identified as having emotional and behavioral disorder and intellectual disabilities are in the at-risk range as outlined by the state. According to the Council for Exceptional Children (2004), in order to address the overrepresentation of African American students in special education, school districts need to:

  • Understand the seriousness of overrepresentation and commit themselves to reviewing their own school programs for any evidence of it;
  • Seek guidance from special education laws and policies;
  • Use a prereferral intervention process when referring students for special education;
  • Give attention to school climate and how it affects the referral of African American students to special education;
  • Increase family involvement; and 
  • Provide teachers with increased professional development.