Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




The disproportionate nature of special education, notably with African American students, is longstanding and most pronounced in judgmental eligibility categories such as intellectual disability and emotional disturbance. Numerous studies on disproportionality conclude there is not a single causative factor, but point to the multifactorial nature of the issue and the complex interplay among different factors. Research related to the role social factors exhibited in an institution have on special education referral and eligibility determination is more limited. This is important since practices employed during the eligibility process take place within the institution’s social environment and are underpinned by the beliefs and values of those that administer the process. By employing a mixed methods study design, the author examined the following questions: 1) are minority students, particularly African American elementary school students, more likely to be disproportionately represented in special education eligibilities across school districts in the county, and if so which ones; 2) within the referral and eligibility process employed, what criteria are used to determine the eligibility emotional disturbance; and 3) do the commonly held perceptions and practices present within the school district’s culture influence the process and decision-making for eligibility?

Quantitative data were obtained from appropriate Illinois State Board of Educations (ISBE) websites and through a Freedom of Information Act request to the

State Board of Education for specific data and statistics related to the special education population for 116 elementary school districts in a suburban midwestern county. Data showed 11 school districts demonstrated disproportionality, a risk ratio >3.0, for years 2011-2013. Of these, eight involved the African American student, with six school districts disproportionality centered on emotional disturbance thereby qualifying as potential candidates for Phase 2. Important to note, unlike previous research on disproportionality that examined school districts with predominantly Caucasian or even more diverse student populations, this study’s school district was primarily Hispanic, 94%, with African Americans making up 2% of students. This provided a unique opportunity to study two minority populations.

The second phase of the study employed a qualitative approach of in-depth, semi-structured face-to-face interviews of key professionals involved in special education eligibility determination from the selected school district. Findings revealed two broad points related to the social environment of the school district that appeared to impact the referral and eligibility process. First is the strength of administrative leadership vis-à-vis process implementation and second is the sociocultural environment of the district.

In this case, leadership was passive when it came to ensuring fidelity to tiered intervention plans, a critical component of the referral process. Basically leadership allowed fidelity and accountability to the intervention process by teachers to be lackluster

at best or worst case absent. Consequently, teachers more resistant to engaging in the intervention process tended have higher student referrals.

The sociocultural environment of the school district studied is comprised basically of two divergent economic classes, the middle class predominately Caucasian educators/administrators and the student population who are of low to very low economic status and predominately of two racial/ethnic minorities. Comments consistently emerged from interviewees regarding differences seen between the Hispanic and African American students culturally, their perceived value structures, and observable behaviors.

A key insight from this research was being a racial/ethnic minority does not per se lead to disproportionate representation in the emotional disturbance eligibility, the dominant culture of the social composition of the student population influences the perceptions and understanding of the educators and professionals who, for the most part, are Caucasian, middle class and more often than not female. Basically, there is an acclimatization of the educators to the culture, behaviors and values of the dominant group against which other racial/ethnic behaviors and values are positioned and judged. The culture, values and behaviors of, in this case, Hispanics students were perceived to be different than that of the African American student and less tolerated.

The intent of this researcher was to provide data that advanced the knowledge of how the social environment of a district interplays with its’ professionals’ belief to shape decision-making and how, in turn, this impacted the issue of overrepresentation of African American students in special education, specifically emotionally disturbed. This study has shown primary contributors to referral and eligibility was poor school

leadership over intervention implementation and differences between the social norms and cultural perspectives of the school environment stakeholders and those of African American students. It is critical from both scholarly and applied practice perspectives that an ongoing effort to implement culturally responsive pedagogy within the school environment. Similarly, research focusing on interventions designed to shape teachers’ perceptions of student behavior is essential to ensure not only equitable educational opportunities, but also eradicate disproportionality.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.