Mapping Prejudice: Special Education

<- All Student Work & Projects

Students at St. Kate’s are engaging with the WTDN in a variety of classes. Here’s how our students are thinking about the issues related to housing inequality and housing segregation. Their work demonstrates “thinking in progress”. 

Mapping Prejudice: Special Education 

Diagnosis and Access in Hennepin County Elementary Schools

By Tracie Fauth | Fall 2021  | Class: DSCI 2994 Data Visualization Class

The Mapping Prejudice project demonstrates the ways racial covenants limit the ability of the BIPOC community to equitably access a variety of resources. While it undoubtedly has a multitude of impacts on education, I had a particular interest in exploring the field of special education with exploration of factors important to diagnosis and resource access.

This topic was of particular interest to me as part of a family with a number of autism diagnoses, one of which came early because educators spotted the signs and offered resources. The early diagnosis and support took a struggling student and helped them turn their academic record around.

Special education diagnosis is heavily skewed, especially when it comes to disabilities like autism. In 1944, Hans Asperger began understanding autism, but only as it applied to males, skewing heavily toward white males. He did not believe women could be affected by autism. With that emphasis on diagnosing and treating white male disabilities, it was clear racial bias likely existed in addition to gendered bias.

Factors for Consideration

There are likely a multitude of factors at play when it comes to disability diagnosis and access in the public school systems. According to an article from EdNC, “Research has also documented relationships between special education designations and factors like service provider bias, cultural or language factor barriers, racial/ethnic prejudice and stigma, broader social inequities in health care access and insurance, and racially segregated and under-resourced schools.” Based on this, using data from Mapping Prejudice and from the Minnesota Department of Education, I approached the topic by focusing on the following areas:

  1. Identifying the districts with the greatest concentration of racial covenants
  2. Comparing BIPOC enrollment to special education enrollment
  3. Comparing BIPOC enrollment to special education educator access
  4. Comparing student and teacher ethnicity in heavily covenanted districts
  5. Comparing special education diagnoses in heavily covenanted districts

Identifying Districts with Significant Racial Covenants 

The first thing to note is which districts contain the highest concentrations of covenants in Hennepin County.

See a pdf of the Hennepin County public school districts here.

Comparing these maps, I identified the following school districts and zip codes as heavily covenanted:


273 – Edina

280 – Richfield

1-5 – Minneapolis

1-6 – Minneapolis

281 – Robbinsdale

Zip Codes








Comparing BIPOC Enrollment to Special Education Enrollment

Overall, there is an upward trend when comparing BIPOC enrollment and special education enrollment in Hennepin County. The scatterplot below marks each individual elementary school in Hennepin County’s BIPOC population versus their special education enrollment. (Three schools were omitted from the plot, as they cater towards Special Education students and thus were outliers with 100% Special Education Enrollment.) 

The slight upward trend gives some evidence for a tendency for BIPOC students to be over-represented within the special education system. In an interview with Harvard EdCast, special education expert Laura Schifter points out, “one of the things that we need to think about is whether identification for special education is appropriate.” While these students are being placed into special education disproportionately, their diagnoses are likely to be inaccurate.

Mapping the enrollment of BIPOC student enrollment versus special education enrollment will begin the narrative with a baseline. The highest concentration of BIPOC enrollment generally falls outside of the areas identified with racial covenants.

Comparing BIPOC Enrollment to Special Education Educator Access

Seeing the trends for covenanted areas to have a higher concentration of white students versus BIPOC and the upward trend of BIPOC students enrolled in special education, I began mapping the location of special education professionals. An article from The Atlantic explored the importance of special education training for these students to thrive. Importantly the author notes, “The need for teachers who have both the knowledge and the ability to teach special-education students is more critical today than ever before. A national push to take students with disabilities out of isolation means most now spend the majority of their days in general-education classrooms, rather than in separate special-education classes. That means general-education teachers are teaching more students with disabilities. But training programs are doing little to prepare teachers.” I do wish to be perfectly clear at this point that the burden of a great deal in the education system falls to teachers. The failures are systemic, not the fault of any individual educator(s).

For comparison, I created four maps:

  1. BIPOC Student Location
  2. Special Education Students
  3. Overall Enrollment
  4. Special Education Teacher Locations

As noted above, we can see the highest concentrations of BIPOC students in 55347, 55316, 55359, 55442, 55374, 55311, 55345, 55431, 55447, 55405, 55420, and 55403. 

Taking the map of special education students versus professionals, one obvious observation comes up. 55441 contains a concentration of schools with a special education focus (ISD 273) that serves the surrounding areas, although the physical location is contained in 55441, creating a high concentration of special education focused professionals.

Comparing the covenanted zip codes and high BIPOC population zip codes, the following information stands out clearly: 

  • In general, the covenanted zip codes have approximately half the percentage of special education staff compared to special education students, with the exception of 55305.
  • The areas with high BIPOC student enrollment are far more likely to have a large disparity between special education staff compared to special education students, with some outliers, like 55431. The concerning zip codes are 55311 and 55316, which have very high BIPOC student populations, relatively high special education enrollment, and very low percentages of special education professionals available in the school.
  • This data also made two clear points – schools can be under-resourced regardless of student population, but schools with higher populations of BIPOC students have a higher tendency to fall into an under-resourced category. 

The enrollment map, placed side-by-side with the map of Special Education Professionals, is clearly demonstrating that special education professionals are not concentrated where the most students are attending school.

Comparing Student and Teacher Ethnicity in Heavily Covenanted Districts

The largest divide in general appears to be between student and teacher ethnicity. The Star Tribune highlighted the trend, calling attention to the potential pitfalls. Over time, the gap is even widening. To compare the most recent numbers, I pulled this data for the covenant heavy districts and the most heavily BIPOC districts. 

In general, it would seem the gap between BIPOC student numbers and BIPOC educator numbers has continued to be at a massive divide. 

Covenanted Districts:

Richfield School District

Image Source: MN Department of Education 

Edina School District

Image Source: MN Department of Education 

Minneapolis Public School District

Robbinsdale Public School District

The importance of racial gaps in educators and student populations can be seen in this article by the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal. Educators who can recognize how disabilities present and impact BIPOC students are crucial to their education. 

Comparing Special Education Diagnoses in Heavily Covenanted Districts

According the Minnesota Department of Education, special education students are categories as follows:

  • ASD Autism Spectrum Disorders 
  • DB Deaf-Blind 
  • DCD-MM Developmental Cognitive Disability: Mild to Moderate 
  • DCD-SP Developmental Cognitive Disability: Severe to Profound 
  • DD Development Delay 
  • DHH Deaf and Hard of Hearing 
  • EBD Emotional or Behavioral Disorders 
  • OHD Other Health Disabilities 
  • PI Physically Impaired 
  • SLD Specific Learning Disability 
  • SLI Speech or Language Impairments 
  • SMI Severely Multiply Impaired 
  • TBI Traumatic Brain Injury 
  • VI Visually Impaired 

Unfortunately, most districts do not report data on racial/ethnic data for their special education students. One area with significant covenants, Minneapolis Public Schools, did provide this full data.

Analyzing this data, there is an immediate difference in the way white and BIPOC students are diagnosed. White and Asian students are more likely to receive an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis while BIPOC students are far more likely to fall into Specific Learning Disorder (SLD). SLD is defined by the state of Minnesota as, “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language.” The fact that this is such a common issue for BIPOC students and not for white students again indicates potential difficulties for a predominantly white education system.

Final Thoughts

In spite of the fact that the entire state of Minnesota appears to be struggling with special education resources, it would appear that covenanted areas are more likely to have more resources, although they still may not be enough. 

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and financial difficulties, as noted by MinnPost, already existing within the system are likely to widen with the financial strain of the pandemic. Distance learning for students with disabilities has been especially challenging, if not impossible to manage for their parents as highlighted in a KARE11 story.

Without proper funding and systemic change, schools in covenanted neighborhoods remain more likely to have proximity and access to special education resources.  

Sources/Further Reading:

  2. Rodricks, Dan. Ben Carson, Donald Trump and the Old D

MN Department of Education

MN Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board

Google Maps (School addresses/zip codes) – To see a full map of the elementary schools in Hennepin County as mapped for this project, click here.