Court Petition: 11-year-old Put in Special-needs Education Due to His Cultural Background

Children from Ethiopian immigrant families being placed in special education settings instead of regular classrooms, rather than addressing the cultural differences with which they come to school.

A petition claiming that an 11-year-old Jerusalem boy, whose family immigrated from Ethiopia, had been unjustifiably placed in a program for children with special needs was filed in a Jerusalem court on Wednesday. The case is seen as part of a wider problem of children from Ethiopian immigrant families being unnecessarily placed in special education settings instead of regular classrooms, rather than addressing the cultural differences with which they come to school.

The petition, which was filed against the Education Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality, claims the boy's parents were not invited by education authorities to discuss their child's school placement and were not provided with documents or any professional opinion justifying his placement in a special education program, despite a provision of the special education law that requires this.

The law stipulates that an appeals committee must invite the parents and the child to a hearing at which they are given an opportunity to present their position. A directive from the Education Ministry's director general goes so far as to state that any decisions taken by the committee without providing the child's parents an opportunity to be heard is not enforceable.

The petition was filed in an administrative affairs court with the support of groups including the educational rights clinic at the Academic Center of Law and Business in Ramat Gan; Tebeka, a rights organization for members of the Ethiopian community in Israel; and the nonprofit Hila, which is involved in equality in education.

The petitioners contend that the boy was not only placed in special education in violation of the law, but that no efforts were made to place him in a regular classroom setting. They also claim to have the results of a professional diagnostic evaluation conducted by an outside expert, a psychologist, who concluded that the boy has no clear learning disabilities or emotional problems that would require his placement in a special education program.

The psychologist did conclude it was necessary to find an "accepting and supportive" educational setting that would enable the child to maximize his intellectual potential, and noted that he should receive remedial help with reading and writing. The psychologist said any conclusion that the boy had signs of learning disabilities could only be based on the child's experience and reports from his teachers.

The petitioners contend that any difficulties the boy has demonstrated are due to cultural disparities rather than disabilities or behavioral issues and that, despite a recommendation that an intervention program be developed for the boy to address the gaps, no program was put together.

The petition alleges that the child has been singled out for unequal treatment due to his cultural background, adding that this will "harm [his] prospects of receiving a higher education and being integrated into the workplace." The petition said the boy's placement in a special education setting constitutes "a violation of his right to equal educational opportunity."

Appended to the petition are a number of studies carried out by various bodies over the past decade in support of the contention that children of Ethiopian origin are placed in special education settings at a rate beyond what is justified. The petition seeks to have the court consider the boy's case "from a broader perspective that there has been an inappropriate tendency in the educational system over the course of years to unnecessarily place children of Ethiopian origin in special education."

According to a study conducted by Michal Shany of the education department at the University of Haifa, the disparities between children of Ethiopian origin and other Jewish students in Israel are the result of cultural differences as well as disparities in their socioeconomic condition. Ethiopian children were frequently found to have clear gaps in their knowledge, including disparities in their ability to acquire writing skills. This has been ascribed in part to the frequent lack of knowledge of proper Hebrew on the part of the children's parents. The fact that the socioeconomic status of most Ethiopian families in Israel is not high is also considered a factor affecting the development of the children's knowledge base.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, during the 2006 to 2007 school year, the rate of placement in special education among students whose fathers were born in Ethiopia was 13.8 percent. This was almost double the rate among other Jewish children, of about 7.5%.