A disproportionate number of Native students – 2 in 5 – received special-education instruction at local schools last year, according to the 2015 Indian Policies and Procedures report released in October by the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 school district.
Nationwide, about 1 in 6 Native students received special education in 2012, the highest rate of any race, according to a U.S. Department of Education report released last month.
“If we have 33 percent Native American students, then probably 33 percent of special-education kids should be Native,” said Superintendent Alex Carter.
Addressing local tribal officials at the IPP meeting, Carter stated that the number of Native students across Re-1 schools who needed special education five years ago, 31 percent, was proportional to student enrollment at the time. Since, the disparity increased about 5 percentage points annually, reaching a peak of 41 percent in 2013/14, the same rate measured last year.
District-wide, the Native student population in 2014/15 was about 27 percent, but 41 percent of the special-education population. The district didn’t disclose special-education data prior to 2011.
“The trend is growing,” Carter said at the district’s annual IPP meeting on Oct. 27. “We don’t have any answers as to why this happened.”
Ute Mountain Ute education director Tanya Amrine acknowledged that Native students were overrepresented in special-education programs, but said she didn’t believe that school officials were singling them out.
“The services the students are getting are what they need to be successful,” Amrine said during an interview with The Journal.
At Cortez Middle School, 52 percent of Native students received special-education instruction last year.
“That’s inflated, or that’s not proportional as you would expect,” Carter said. “It doesn’t mean they’re misidentified. They might be appropriately identified.”
Carter explained that the district could reveal the number of Native elementary students receiving special education only at Manaugh, because of low sample sizes. At Manaugh, he said, Natives accounted for 56 percent of students in special education and made up half the student body. At the high school, Natives made up 27 percent of the student body last year, but 38 percent were in special education.
In a half-hour interview, The Journal asked whether the district might be inappropriately determining when Native students needed special education.
“I would leave that up to the parents,” Carter replied, adding that school officials haven’t received such feedback.
Some answers might lie in Native culture.
A report released in October by the U.S. Department of Education and the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education School Environment revealed that Native parents believe that cultural and linguistic misunderstandings help to drive the disparity in special education for Native students.
More than 1,000 Native students and parents representing tribes throughout the U.S. gathered at multiple locations to provide testimony for the report.
“We’d love to see more ability to bring in tribal resources,” Carter said in response to the report’s findings.
With a tribal representative on hand at a student’s special-education screening, for example, Carter said the district could better ensure that cultural differences were considered. He added, however, that the practice would require an active parental waiver of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“When we’re identifying (special-education disparities) as an issue, we don’t think it’s so much a learning issue as a cultural area, and that’s something that we need to get better at,” Carter told The Journal.
Special-education assessments screen for learning disabilities, including developmental delays or autism, as well as social and emotional problems such as speech and hearing impairments.
Although Native parents have a seat at the table during a special-education assessment, many are unlikely to understand the process. Sitting in with Amrine during The Journal’s interview, Ute Mountain Ute K-12 education official Tina King-Washington explained that parents were easily confused when school psychologists used scientific jargon.
“Sometimes, the parents have no clue what they are being told,” said King-Washington. “It can be very intimidating.”
Compounding matters, Amrine said, is that some Natives remain silent when faced with confrontation or confusion.
“When you’re in front of all those white faces, and you’re the only Native in the room, then it can be pretty hard to speak up,” said Amrine.
Pointing to students who speak Ute or Navajo at home but English in class, King-Washington added that some Native students should receive language instruction instead of being placed in special education.
“I see kids that struggle with language, and the schools want to put them in special education,” said King-Washington, an English Language Learner instructor. “That’s not what they need.”
In regard to the disproportionate number of Natives in special education, the U.S. report further revealed that low expectations from teachers may discourage Native students from reaching their potential.
“That’s something that we are committed to not doing,” Carter said, stating that the district’s contract language required teachers to view all students as capable.
According to Carter, Jessica Spencer, Re-1’s director of exceptional-student services, is examining regional benchmarks to better determine the levels of special-education classifications in district schools. Spencer declined to participate in a Journal interview.