Keary Saffold can still remember the way his second-grade teacher made him feel when he wrote “God” instead of “good” on a spelling test and she curtly pointed out his mistake.
“It made me feel two inches tall,” he said, adding it’s the sort of interaction that can trigger or fuel an inferiority complex in youth.
Reflecting on his elementary years in the Minneapolis Public Schools district, Saffold admits he could be “rambunctious” at times, feeling pressure to assert his masculinity while among his peers. But the reason he still thinks back to that particular moment in second grade is because it exemplifies the strained relationship he had with his teacher — the very teacher who approached his parents, suggesting they get him evaluated for an emotional or behavioral disorder.
“As I look back on it, she didn't know who I was. I was a poseur and she bit the bait,” he said. “Society makes a lot of our boys feel like they have to have a certain approach to things, a certain way of handling themselves.”
Thankfully, he says, his parents — both educators — knew who he really was, and they stood their ground. Rather than allowing anyone to mislabel their boy, they exercised their right to open enroll him in other districts that better fit his needs. He attended public school in Mendota Heights, then a Catholic school in St. Paul, and graduated from the St. Paul Public Schools' Central High School.
Now he’s a parent in the Twin Cities, with two boys who have both been flagged by their teachers for emotional or behavioral disorder evaluations. He and his wife also resisted. They eventually moved their youngest son, whose teachers began insisting on an evaluation his kindergarten year, to Best Academy, a charter school in North Minneapolis, during his third-grade year.
“When I transferred him — same year, same kid, different setting, different teacher, different level of expectation — he went to the top of his class,” Saffold said. “I saw the shift in my son. He was excited. His confidence was through the roof.”
Saffold’s personal experiences navigating the education system have inspired him to challenge the over-representation of students of color, especially black kids, on emotional or behavioral disorder plans. It’s a largely subjective, catchall disability category. And this imbalance signals a need to re-examine how educators’ racial biases — implicit or explicit — play a role in how this label is being designated.
“I don’t see the benefits of anyone ever receiving this label. It’s something that I feel like is happening right under our noses. It’s a very racist, systematic approach that we’ve inherited, and something needs to be done about it,” he said. “As I look at the many students who have received this label and the trajectory they’ve been placed on, it ignites my passion to address it.”
Recently equipped with a $50,000 pilot-project grant from Minnesota Comeback, Keary is setting out to train 150 parents in the Twin Cities to serve as behavior development advocates at their schools and in their communities. The project aligns with his work as president and CEO of the KWS Consulting firm he established in 2006 and the KWST Behavioral Development Group, which he founded in 2017.
A clear imbalance
A breakdown of the most recent student disability data, from the 2015-16 school year, provided by the state Department of Education shows that racial disparities within special education persist in the Twin Cities.
In the Minneapolis Public Schools district, black students accounted for 67 percent of all students given the emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD) label. Yet black students only made up 36 percent of the student body. Put another way, 4.4 percent of all black students in the district were identified as having this particular disorder.
In the St. Paul Public Schools district, black students accounted for 56 percent of all students given the EBD label. That same year, black students only made up 27 percent of the study body. That means 4.1 percent of all black students were given the EBD label.
Black students aren’t the only minority group more likely to end up receiving this label. American Indian students and multiracial students are also more likely than their white, Hispanic and Latino peers to be identified this way.
This imbalance matters because students given the EBD label are set up on a different trajectory than their peers, sometimes as early as their kindergarten year. While some students may benefit from the associated services provided — whether it be more one-on-one attention or a more structured learning environment — there are some negative outcomes associated with the label.
According to federal statistics, about 40 percent of EBD students become high school dropouts. Those who manage to stay in school are less likely to make the same academic gains as their peers. These students are also burdened with a stigma that comes associated with a special education label — the sort of thing that can negatively impact their self-esteem and sense of potential. Offering a recent example, Saffold says he was in a school where he heard an adult single out a student by name over the school's PA system, telling them their special education bus was waiting for them.
Beyond academics, these students are disproportionately impacted by exclusionary discipline measures. And some districts consolidate students given the most severe emotional or behavioral disorder labels in separate school buildings, as is the case with Minneapolis’ Harrison Education Center. While these schools are designed to be a temporary placement for students, few ever exit and return to mainstream classrooms.
“For me, these schools are the pipeline, from school to prison,” Saffold said. “I refer to them as ‘baby jails.’ Harrison is just one. We have a ton of them throughout the metro area.”
In the master’s program he recently completed at St. Mary’s University, Saffold focused on the over-representation of black students given the EBD label in his thesis. Now equipped with some seed funding to empower parents of color to advocate on the behalf of their children, he’s hoping to disrupt what he views as a label that was created to resegregate schools.
He’s committed to training 150 parents, with the expectation that they’ll turn around and conduct similar trainings for other parents in their communities, whether it be at a church, a library or someone’s home. The grant funds will cover associated venue, food and child-care expenses, as well as compensation for 25 lead parent advocates, Saffold and three others who work for his consulting firm who are helping with this project.
Participants will develop a deeper understanding of the role implicit bias plays in the identification of students for EBD plans, the historical context of the issue, the impacts on students who receive the label, the side effects of the most often prescribed medications, and effective ways to advocate for children who might otherwise be mislabeled.
Having advocated alongside parents in a prior role he held at a first-ring suburban public school district, Saffold says there are a number of things parents should consider before heading into a meeting to discuss their child’s learning needs. First, he tells them to never go into a meeting alone, even if that means bringing a neighbor along. That’s because walking into a room where their kid’s teacher, principal and other support staff are convened can be intimidating, not to mention that all the education jargon can leave a parent feeling incompetent.
In his opinion, when these sorts of special-education evaluation conversations with minority parents are guided by another person of color, parents let their guard down. Having sat on both sides of the table, Keary says it’s important for parents to realize that people of color can push the status quo just as hard as any white person. To keep parents focused, he advises them to ask a simple question when presented with a request that their child be evaluated for an emotional or behavioral disorder: What is the trajectory of students who get this label?
“Solutions to the issue require intentional efforts from educators and administrators, authentically working together with parents, to create interventions and services that truly benefit students without depending so heavily on special-education services that remove and displace students from their peers while lowering educational and behavioral expectations," he said.