School psychology has a diversity problem, especially when it comes to black men:

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Black men in the United States are more likely to be professional football players than public school psychologists.

This is a startling statistic. But for Chase McCullum, a black man who became a school psychologist more than a decade ago, that’s just the reality.

“I think education isn’t something a lot of people in my background would typically seek out,” he says.

Growing up in southern Mississippi in the 90s, McCullum planned to become a lawyer.

“I didn’t even know what a school psychologist was.”

But when he found out about the profession — through internet research while a student at the University of Mississippi — he was sold. “Once I found out what it was and all that school psychologists can do, I fell in love with it.”

Psychologists play a vital role in K-12 schools. They support students in their mental health, help prevent bullying and promote conflict resolution between students. They are often the only person in an entire school who is trained to assess a student’s behavioral, emotional, and academic needs. A key element is to assess whether a student has a disability.

And yet, there is a clear disconnect between the demographics of school psychologists and the student populations they serve. According to survey data from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), more than 85 percent of school psychologists are white, while most K-12 public school students are not.

The exact number of black male school psychologists is difficult to determine, but the NASP estimates that they represent less than 1% of psychologists in US public schools.

Other groups, including Asian Americans and Hispanics, are also underrepresented. But some experts are particularly concerned about the shortage of black male psychologists. Black children, especially boys, are disproportionately likely to be disciplined at school, forcibly handled by police, and referred to special education services.

“That depiction of a black male professional in the school building, it’s almost priceless,” says Bobby Gueh, who teaches in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University.

And it’s not just black boys who benefit. “It has an impact on the whole school,” he says.

The history of special education may turn people away from school psychology

Federal law guarantees students with disabilities the right to “free appropriate public education,” and school psychologists play a key role in assessing what “appropriate” means. For a given student, this could mean providing occupational therapy, counseling, or time with a paraprofessional. School psychologists also help decide whether to place students in separate special education classes.

For decades, black students have been disproportionately referred to special education services. The National Center for Learning Disabilities finds that black students are 40% more likely than their peers to be identified as having a disability, including a learning disability or developmental disability. They are also more likely to be identified as having “emotional disturbance”, a label that advocates have long criticized as stigmatizing.

“Representation matters,” says Celeste Malone, an associate professor of school psychology at Howard University. “What does it mean to have a predominantly white profession working with predominantly colored children, within a racist society?”

She thinks the history of special education may discourage black people from pursuing careers in school psychology.

“It might be difficult to reconcile wanting to pursue a profession and wanting to support kids who are like you,” with the role that school psychology “has played in the special education assessment system,” she explains.

Malone, who is also president of the NASP, notes that at some historically black colleges and universities, psychology departments don’t steer their students toward school psychology because of the field’s “historical legacy.”

Black men don’t always feel there is a place for them in education

Another challenge, according to several experts at -, is that black men are often turned away from education as a career.

“The conversation most black boys have is ‘you gotta go to a field that makes a lot of money,'” says Gueh from Georgia State.

McCullum, the Mississippi school psychologist, agrees: “I don’t think men feel like there’s a place for them in education.”

He discovered school psychology after volunteering at a Boys and Girls Club while in college and realized he wanted a career where he could support young people. A Google search led him to school psychology, which surprised his family.

“It was kind of like, ‘Why would you want to get into this when you could be pursuing something else?’ ” he says. “I think the perception is that if you go to college and try to take care of your family and do that kind of stuff, you’re probably going to some other field.”

A solution may lie in targeted recruitment

With such an extreme shortage of black men in a field that desperately needs them, some leaders are working on solutions.

The NASP is expanding its Expo Project, where school psychologists of color give presentations to undergraduate and high school classrooms in an effort to find recruits. “If you see more people from different backgrounds,” McCullum says, “and recognize that we’re all doing the same job, I think that can really change the way we look at the field.”

Some school psychologists are committed to changing the practices of the profession. Byron McClure, a school psychologist in Houston who advocates for greater representation in the field, says that to attract more black men, there needs to be a major shift in the role school psychologists play.

Instead of relying on assessments to separate some students into special education, McClure says, school psychologists should use their expertise more broadly. For example, by creating restorative justice policies or helping to design a more culturally appropriate program.

Doing all of this requires more resources. NASP recommends one school psychologist for every 500 students. But most school districts don’t even come close to that goal. With such limited resources, school psychologists devote much of their time to special education assessments.

McClure has started a networking and recruiting organization that he hopes will help increase the number of black male school psychologists.

We can’t just complain about the problem, he says. “We have to do something about it.”

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