Underrepresentation of Hispanic/Latino Students Identified with Emotional Disturbance in IDEIA: What's the Teacher's Role?



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Historically, Hispanic/Latino (H/L) students have been under-referred, under-identified, and under-served by the U.S. Special Education (SPED) system, particularly under the emotional behavioral disturbance (EBD) category. This finding is alarming given that numerous federal sources report that H/L students continue a disturbing trend of struggling academically as well as being at a higher risk for poor mental health outcomes such as elevated levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidality when compared to their peers. Unfortunately, the existing mental health and education literature on H/L students provides limited guidance in understanding the disproportionate underrepresentation of H/L in the EBD category of the SPED system; an underrepresentation well-documented in the report to congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA).

Using survey methods, the purpose of this study was to shed light on the possible mediating role teachers' perceptions have on the SPED referral and identification decisions by looking at teacher ratings of risk for EBD-like behaviors of students across behavioral conditions (i.e., internalizing versus externalizing types of behaviors) and across ethnic/racial groups (i.e., White, African Americans, and H/L students) using a response-to-intervention framework.

Using the Qualtrics software, an online survey tool, 114 self-selected pre-service teachers were surveyed; data was collected and analyzed using a One-way Analysis of Variance. Two main effects and two interaction effects were explored: does the students' ethnic/racial background moderate the teachers' at risk score (ARS) regardless of the behavior displayed?; does the type of behavioral expression moderate the ARS regardless of ethnic/race?; is there an interaction effect between H/L students exhibiting internalizing behaviors that systematically results in a lower ARS and AA students exhibiting externalizing behaviors that systematically results in a higher ARS?

Results indicated that (a) when compared to White, Hispanic/Latino students are indeed less likely to be perceived by the pre-service teachers as exhibiting EBD-like behaviors regardless of the behavior (externalizing, internalizing, or neutral) displayed, (b) externalizing behaviors was the strongest predictor for perceiving someone as at-risk for having EBD-like behaviors, and (c) no interaction effects were found.