Racial, gender and sexual orientation bias in PDSB leads to labels of behavioural problems, report finds

·10 min read

Marginalized students—particularly those who are Indigenous or Black—within the Peel District School Board are more likely to be labeled with behavioural problems, an annual report on the board’s Special Education Program has found.

A behavioural exceptionality is defined by the Ministry of Education as a learning disorder characterized by specific behaviour problems which adversely affects educational performance. It may be accompanied with an inability to build or to maintain interpersonal relationships; excessive fears or anxieties; a tendency to compulsive reaction; and an inability to learn that cannot be traced to intellectual, sensory, or other health factors.

Other exceptionalities a student in Ontario can be identified with are communication, which includes autism, deafness and hearing impairments, language impairment and learning disabilities; intellectual exceptionality including giftedness, mild intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities; and physical exceptionality including a physical disability as well as vision impairments.

Prepared by Jeffrey Blackwell, PDSB’s Acting Associate Director of School Improvement and Equity, and submitted by Rashmi Swarup, the Board’s Director of Education, the report presents data focusing on special education from the 2018-2019 school year.

Comparing their presence with the general population, Indigenous students were over six times more likely to be labeled with a behavioural exceptionality than the student population numbers would predict, while Black students were over three times more likely. Gender diverse students, including transgender, intersex or non-binary, were also almost three times more likely. Students identifying as 2SLGTBQIA+ are overrepresented across all exceptionalities.

The report uses a racial disproportionality index as a measure of a racial group’s overrepresentation or underrepresentation in a program relative to the group’s representation in the reference population. For example, Black students may represent x number in the PDSB but represent x number of students with behavioural problems, as defined and labeled by the PDSB.

“Parekh and Brown (2019) note that the proportions of students referred to special education and their identified categories are inconsistent across Ontario school boards,” reads the report presented in March, citing the 2019 research article Changing Lanes: The Relationship Between Special Education Placement and Students’ Academic Futures by Gillian Parekh and Robert S. Brown.

“What is known however is that Black students are more likely to be referred to special education placement based on behavioural issues.”

The 2022 Annual Equity Accountability Report Card, which was reviewed by the Board in March, is part of the ongoing issue that stemmed from evidence of systemic bias and discrimination, including anti-Black racism, and serious issues related to governance, leadership and human resources practices within the PDSB, which led the Minister of Education Stephen Lecce to launch a formal review in November 2019.

The review, submitted February 2020, found PDSB was suspending Black secondary school students at a rate

2.2 times higher than their representation in the overall student body, with Black students making up only 10.2 percent of the secondary school population, but about 22.5 percent of students receiving suspensions.

Evidence from suspension records showed that white students faced no discipline for wearing hoodies, bandanas or things like hoop earrings, while Black students were often suspended for doing the same.

“We heard from Black students, parents and members of the PDSB that some teachers use any excuse to exclude Black students from the classroom and some principals use any excuse to suspend Black students from schools: ‘hoodie—suspension, hoop earrings—suspension, doo rag—suspension,” read the 2020 review wrote by authors Ena Chadha, Suzanne Herbert, and Shawn Richard.

“We also heard that unlike suspensions and expulsions, exclusions from classrooms are not recorded and parents are not notified. One vice-principal noted that children spend days staring at a white wall not learning and parents never know about this de facto form of suspension. Black students described an arbitrary disciplinary system that sought them out. Repeatedly we heard about Black students being suspended from school, some as early as junior kindergarten. In response, we requested suspension data disaggregated not only by race, but also by grade. What we learned is alarming.”

The review led to a series of 27 Ministry directives released in March, 2020, including one instructing the Board to develop and implement a comprehensive report that makes note of clearly defined ways the board plans to improve life for its students, including eliminating disparities in achievement of students from the Board’s various communities; establishing accountability measures and responsibilities for school and senior board leadership using disaggregated data; and assessing, evaluating, and reporting on progress toward improving outcomes for all students.

On April 28, 2020 the Minister of Education appointed Arleen Huggins to conduct an investigation of the PDSB to assess the Board's compliance with the Minister’s binding directives.

The following month, Huggins submitted her report and findings to the Minister of Education. She concluded that the PDSB did not have the ability or the will to provide good governance or to effectively carry out its responsibilities to oversee and ensure proper compliance with the directives.

On June 22, 2020, the Ministry appointed Bruce Rodrigues to supervise the Peel District School Board, taking over governance from elected trustees, most of whom have objected to the ministry’s involvement. This came days after students, families and staff held a protest called March for Justice, demanding equity and fair treatment within the PDSB.

It is the second largest school board in Ontario, serving a diverse student population across Brampton, Caledon, and Mississauga. The Board has 217 elementary schools and 42 secondary schools and over 155,000 students.

In PDSB’s 2021 Annual Equity Accountability Report Card: Baseline Data on the Equity Gap in Student Outcomes, it was found that Black girls were almost ten times less likely to be identified as gifted, whereas Black boys were 3.4 times less likely to be identified as gifted than their presence in the overall PDSB student population would predict. Giftedness is defined by the Ministry of Education as an unusually advanced degree of general intellectual ability that requires differentiated learning experiences beyond those normally provided in the regular school program to satisfy the level of educational potential indicated.

Black and Middle Eastern students are underrepresented in the PDSB gifted student population. These students were found to be three times less likely to be identified as gifted than their presence in the overall PDSB student population. East Asian students are overrepresented among gifted students, being five times more likely to be identified as gifted.

“Special education has drawn critique as being complicit in segregation across racial, class, and disability,” the PDSB March report highlights.

“Research indicates clear evidence of disproportionality of Black and racialized students within special education classes, pointing to a stronger focus on individual characteristics than on educational potential and attainment. Racialized students are overrepresented in every special education category including emotional/behavioural disorders, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and speech and language disorders.”

The report presented to Peel’s Board drew similarities between their own special education program and the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) Home School Program (HSP).

The HSP is a hybrid model of special education where students spend part of their day with a special education class and part of the day with their homeroom.

PDSB’s 2021 Annual Equity Accountability Report Card found that Black students are approximately two times more likely to be identified with special education needs and Black students of all socioeconomic vulnerability levels are overrepresented among the students with identified special education needs.

Within the HSP program, Black students were found to comprise 22 percent of students and were from primarily low-to-middle-income households with parents who were not afforded access to postsecondary education.

“Parekh and Brown (2019) found that the process of segregation implemented by the HSP directly correlated to student exclusion from academic programming in high school, which greatly limits future academic opportunities. In additional TDSB data, James and Turner (2017) found that fewer Black students than white students had no special education needs. When identified as having a special education need, a greater proportion of Black students than white students were identified as having non-gifted exceptionalities.”

It noted that in additional TDSB data, from 2017, researchers identified a significant impact that low expectations and stereotypes toward Black students have on academic recommendations and support toward educational pursuits.

“Black students are positioned as not capable of academic excellence, with one participant in James and Turner’s (2017) consultation noting that ‘racism is a barrier that blocks the ability of Black students to focus on academics.’ The identification of Black students as having learning disabilities was another concern voiced in James and Turner’s (2017) work,” the PDSB report states.

The report said that this led to community members questioning the formal diagnostic tests used to determine placement and also questioned whether appropriate testing was used with Black students.

“These concerns centered on whether teachers used subjective methods to ‘diagnose’ students with learning disabilities without the use of formal processes or parental input.”

In terms of intellectual disabilities, the March report for Peel found Indigenous students are more than four times as likely to be identified with a mild intellectual disability and Black students are more than two times as likely compared to what their representation in the PDSB population would predict.

Indigenous students were found to be more than five times as likely to be identified with a learning disability compared to what their representation in the PDSB population would predict.

Indigenous students are more than five times as likely to be identified with an exceptionality and are more than five times as likely to be identified as autistic compared to what their representation in the PDSB student population would predict.

When it comes to autism, Indigenous students are more than five times as likely to be identified as autistic, and gender diverse students are almost three times more likely to be identified as autistic.

Within Peel’s special education programs, 11 percent of Black students received one or more suspensions in 2018-19, while eight percent of Indigenous students received one or more suspensions. Seven percent of both Latin American and Middle Eastern students with special education needs received one or more suspensions.

The Pointer reached out to the PDSB for the full previous year’s report: “2021 Annual Equity Accountability Report Card: Baseline Data on the Equity Gap in Student Outcomes.” Data referenced from the 2021 report came from the 2022 report that includes information from the previous year’s document. The full 2021 report was not obtained.

A range of actions for the PDSB are highlighted in the report. These include continuing to work with relevant parties to build understanding of the purpose of assessments for informing instruction and programming rather than for placements; as well as development of program descriptions and admission criteria to address the overrepresentation of Black, Indigenous and racialized students within special education.

Other recommended actions include:

Email: jessica.durling@thepointer.com

Twitter: @JessicaRDurling

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