Denver planned to stop separating students with emotional disabilities. Now, the district has changed course.

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This article was published on Chalkbeat Colorado by Melanie Asmar on August 18, 2021.

Denver Public Schools had planned to abolish its system of separate classrooms for students with emotional disabilities, describing them recently as “one of our most glaring examples of institutionalized racism.”

Black male students are four and a half times as likely as other students to be placed in these classrooms, where, advocates say, they get a subpar education.

But when Denver schools start next week, the classrooms that the district’s own staff have called problematic will remain open. The district now says that closing the classrooms, known as affective needs centers, goes against its “obligations to appropriately serve students with disabilities.”

That has prompted Advocacy Denver, a group that works with families of children with disabilities, to file a complaint this month with the federal Office for Civil Rights, alleging a pattern of discrimination against Black male students.

“We’ve been having discussions with the district for many, many years in terms of the disproportionality,” said Pamela Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver.

She said that while she appreciates that the district acknowledged the inequity, she’s frustrated that it backed out of deploying a bold solution.

With a new superintendent, Alex Marrero, taking the helm of Denver Public Schools last month, Bisceglia said she wanted to make sure the issue got the attention it deserves. She said she was heartened when Marrero called her within 15 minutes of getting her complaint.

“Students don’t have time for new leaders to catch up,” Bisceglia said.

District officials declined an interview because there is a pending complaint.

In a lengthy email response, the district acknowledged that the data in the complaint is accurate. Biased tests cause a disproportionate number of Black students to be identified with serious emotional disabilities or “other health impairments” largely based on their behavior and placed in these separate classrooms.

The affective needs centers have high staff turnover, subpar supplies, and make students feel “othered,” according to an early vision statement for Project DISRUPT, the district’s plan to dismantle the centers. (Read the full vision statement below.)

“The disparities identified by Project DISRUPT are real,” district officials said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “However, the root causes behind those challenges and data are complex.

“Because of these complexities, it was determined that abolishing [affective needs] classrooms at that time did not align with our obligations to appropriately serve students with disabilities.”

In its statement, Denver Public Schools said it did not end Project DISRUPT. Instead, the district said it has “reframed and restarted” it as Project Continuum, which will focus on “the full spectrum” of special education and gifted programming. Black students in Denver are overrepresented in special education and underrepresented in gifted programs, district data shows.

The district’s statement does not offer any more details about Project Continuum.

These changes are happening against a backdrop of Denver’s elected school board calling for the district to better serve Black students and students with disabilities. About 14% of Denver’s 90,000 students are Black, and 12% of Denver students have a disability.

About 250 students attend affective needs centers, which are housed at 31 elementary, middle, and high schools across Denver, a district document about Project DISRUPT says.

Despite keeping the centers open, district officials say they are proud of their efforts to recognize institutional racism. “As an organization, DPS does not hesitate to boldly call out inequities and the impacts of racism on our educational system,” the district’s statement said.

District data shows those inequities run deep. In the three years before the pandemic, Black students in Denver were three times more likely than students of other races to be placed in affective needs centers, and Black male students were four and a half times more likely to be in the centers, according to district documents cited in Bisceglia’s complaint.

The evaluations that place students in the centers are “fraught with bias” and administered by educators who are disproportionately white and “have unconscious biases that impact how they treat and respond to students,” one of the documents says.

“These biases have grave consequences, particularly for Black male students,” it states.

Although students in affective needs centers have been identified as having “average to above-average intelligence,” only 3% of Black students in the centers scored at or above grade level on state literacy tests between the 2016-17 and 2018-19 school years, according to a document summarizing data connected to Project DISRUPT. Only 1% scored at or above grade level in math, the document says. (Read the full document below.)

Just 21 of the 55 Black students in affective needs centers — 38% — who were set to graduate over those three years earned a diploma, and only six went to college, the document says. The districtwide four-year graduation rate last year was 75%, according to state data.

“This system needs to be abolished, and we must reimagine how we serve Black students with known and suspected disabilities,” the Project DISRUPT vision statement says.

“We could have taken the safe way out and stated that there are ‘many issues’ with [affective needs] centers that need to be addressed,” it says. “But it does not take a statistician to recognize that Black students overwhelmingly suffer the consequences of this unjust system. Rather than spinning our wheels on temporary or ‘band-aid’ solutions, we are asking you to join us in a complete and total overhaul of this system.”

But a total overhaul isn’t happening.

In its statement, the district said, “additional efforts were needed to ensure achievement of our dual objectives: eliminating identified disproportionalities in [affective needs] classrooms, while providing highly supportive and individually tailored program settings for the students who need them.”

Bisceglia’s federal complaint asks for a host of remedies, including:

  • That the district hire a third party to evaluate each student assigned to an affective needs center in a “culturally and linguistically appropriate” way to determine if they have suffered any “educational harm” for which the district must make up.
  • That the district train its own staff on culturally and linguistically appropriate evaluations and review of every evaluation in which a Black male student is identified with a disability.
  • That the district include parents in all decisions about where their child with a disability will attend school, including whether they’ll be assigned to a separate classroom.
  • That the district release a copy of all information collected as part of Project DISRUPT. Bisceglia filed an open records request for that information, but the district withheld some of it, arguing that it was privileged information under state law.

The crux of what Bisceglia wants is summed up in one of the bullet points at the end of the complaint. It asks that the Office for Civil Rights order Denver Public Schools to dismantle the affective needs centers and close a separate district school for students with disabilities.

“Students will be assigned to their neighborhood school or a school chosen by the family,” it says. “The district will provide appropriate special education, supplementary aids, and services to allow the student’s participation in academic, non-academic, and extracurricular activities.”

It’s not clear how long a federal investigation might take or what changes it may require.