Under the Guise: What Special Education for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders can Really Mean

Degree Name

MA in Intercultural Service, Leadership, and Management

First Advisor

James Breeden


There is a system of private, for-profit schools in this country that service special education students. These schools include quiet rooms - small rooms with reinforced walls that lock only from the outside, and teachers and staff who are trained in how to restrain and escort students. In these schools there is a disproportionate representation of African American students and students from the poor and working classes. This paper seeks to investigate what happens inside of these schools where white middle class norms and standards are enforced on a non-dominant population in a hands-on setting.

In putting the pieces together, there is a review of the causes of disproportional representation of minority students in special education environments. This review looks both at societal factors and school risk factors, meaning the ways in which schools themselves create this over-representation of minority students. The role of racism, able-ism and classism in the institutionalized education system and in the minds of individual teachers, psychologists, and administrators is a continuous theme throughout the paper.

Finally, and most importantly this study is an inside investigation of the way these forces play out in a special education high school for emotionally and behaviorally disordered students. Questions are raised about staff expectations for students, ideas of normality, and appropriate responses to poor behavior. The structure of the school's behavioral management program is dissected along with its actual use to find the interplays of power, authority, and control over the students' daily educational experience. Connections are drawn between what the students experience in school and in their home communities. The outcomes of the practices used in the school are questioned against the intentions behind them. Most importantly, the project wrestles with how the education system under study reproduces race and class divides in this country.


Special Education and Teaching

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