San Francisco's special education classes disproportionately filled with minority students 

In Rachel Kayce’s classroom at Dianne Feinstein Elementary, students illustrate cards depicting their dreams.

“I want to be on Broadway one day.” “My goal is to be a soccer player.” “I will follow directions the first time I’m told.”

As that final dream suggests, this is no everyday classroom. It’s a special day class for third- through fifth-graders considered “emotionally disturbed,” a category within special education.

Here, along with lessons in reading comprehension, vocabulary and cursive handwriting, eight 8- to 10-year-olds learn to master intense emotions. One student dissolves into tears as Kayce helps him tally his points for the morning lesson. Another is reminded to stop slapping her hands because it’s distracting. Outside, a student from a neighboring classroom howls with rage.

“Most of my students don’t have the ability to emotionally regulate, or don’t practice it, which can lead to more acting out,” Kayce said. “Others need practice with boundaries and structure.”

Of the nine students in Kayce’s class on a recent morning, four are black. That’s about par for the course. Although black students make up just 10.8 percent of the San Francisco Unified School District’s population, 22.8 percent of special-education students and 47 percent of “emotionally disturbed” students are black.

Higher-than-expected numbers of black students also show up among those with learning disabilities, along with Hispanic students, who also cluster in the “speech and language impairment” category.

This disproportionality is not new. In 1971, black students fought the SFUSD’s use of racially biased IQ tests to sequester them in classes for “educable mentally retarded” students. The tests were banned, but black and Hispanic students still wind up in special-education classrooms at higher rates than their white or Asian peers.

Statewide, the SFUSD was one of 61 of the state’s 838 school districts with disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic students in special education in the 2008-09 school year, and one of 42 that violated state special-education policies, according to a report from the California Department of Education.

“There’s institutional racism there,” said Katy Franklin, a member of the SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. “When a white kid throws a chair they think, ‘Autistic.’ When a black kid does this, they’re labeled emotionally disturbed. I don’t think it’s deliberate; it’s just what happens.”

Subtle things, such as being taught at home not to make eye contact, can land kids in hot water, said Patricia Fitzsimmons, a former special-education teacher who now teaches law and directs the child advocacy clinic at the University of San Francisco.

“If they’re acting out, and the teacher thinks, ‘The kid isn’t looking at me when I’m talking,’ it’s seen as aggressive, or unwillingness to participate,” Fitzsimmons said.

As with many special-education students, kids labeled emotionally disturbed are placed in separate classrooms such as Kayce’s. This separation, combined with over-representation, leads black students to lose access to the general-education curriculum, be misclassified and receive services that don’t meet their needs, according to a report by the Council for Exceptional Children.

Such placements can follow them for the rest of their lives. In 2005, less than half of special-education students went on to college, according to a report from the National Center for Special Education Research. Just 56 percent were employed, earning an average of $9.10 per hour. Sixty-one percent of emotionally disturbed youth had been arrested.

“They’re seen as the bad kids, and then special education becomes a feeder system to [juvenile hall] to prison,” Fitzsimmons said.

This year, the SFUSD is deploying a $45,000 state grant to study the roots of this disproportionality in special education, according to Cecelia Dodge, the district’s special-education director. After two years of analysis, leaders will develop steps for fixing the problem.

But others are skeptical the grant will help.

“We’ve been studying it until the cows come home,” said Linda Plack, executive vice president of the teachers’ union.

Plack believes the sources of overrepresentation come from outside the classroom.

“Not enough of our children have the advantages they need when they enter our school system,” she said. “They don’t have the books in the home, the attention, the nutrition they need.”

Daniel Losen, a researcher on UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, does not believe poverty alone could play such a big role.

“Poverty usually has some increase in risk of having a disability, but it doesn’t come close to explaining these huge disparities,” Losen said.

Also this year, the district is beginning to take special-education students in kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades out of their separate classrooms and integrate them with their general-education peers, according to SFUSD spokeswoman Gentle Blythe. Other grades will follow in future years.

State law requires all special-ed students to be taught in the least-segregated environment possible. In 2010-11, 24 percent of emotionally disturbed students were in general-education classrooms, an integration process known as “inclusion.” Another 47 percent were in separate classrooms, and 29 percent were in private or institutional settings, Blythe said.

But the district’s integration efforts may not affect these kids. “I don’t think the emotionally disturbed students will be put into inclusion,” Franklin said. “They’re not going to put violent kids into classrooms.”

Dodge admits that the fixes the SFUSD is pursuing now are a long time in coming.

“It takes a very sustained effort,” she said. “It takes consistency and leadership, and there hasn’t necessarily been that.”


Racially biased tests condemned in past

When Linda Plack began teaching in San Francisco in 1963, the schools were racially segregated. Almost 40 years later, the executive vice president of the United Educators of San Francisco says black students are still struggling for an equal education.

Numerous court rulings have required the district to keep its schools integrated. However, black and Hispanics have continued to be singled out and over-represented in many areas, including special education.

Brown v. Board of Education proscribed desegregation nationwide in 1954, but it wasn’t until 1971, when a student named David Johnson sued the San Francisco Unified School District in a class-action case, which federal judges ordered the district to integrate.

That same year, six black SFUSD children — including one named Larry P. — challenged the district’s use of IQ tests to funnel kids into special-education programs for “educable mentally retarded” students.

It took eight years, but in Larry P. v. Riles, a judge ruled that IQ tests were biased against black students. He ordered the SFUSD to stop administering the tests or using them to place students in programs for retarded students capable of classroom learning.

In 1968-69, black children were 27 percent of that population but just about 9 percent of the state school population, according to court documents.

“These apparent overenrollments could not be the result of chance,” Judge Cecil Poole of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the ruling.

At the time, the SFUSD argued that there was a higher incidence of mental retardation among blacks.

“This theory fails to account for the problem, because even if it is assumed that black children have a 50 percent greater incidence of this type of mental retardation, there is still less than a one in 100,000 chance that the enrollment could be so skewed toward black children,” Poole wrote.

Since then, however, the numbers have not changed much. Today, statewide, 7.5 percent of all students and 10.9 percent of special-education students are black. In San Francisco, those numbers are 10.8 percent and 25.8 percent, respectively.

Repeated shortcomings

In 2009 and 2010, San Francisco school officials studied disproportionality in their special-education programs. In May 2010, the California Department of Education demanded that the San Francisco Unified School District correct 21 special-ed violations. The district failed to test students’ vision and hearing, often failed to use the right tools to assess disabilities and tested young students with assessments meant for older students. The district reportedly corrected all problems, although state officials will investigate this year.

A sampling of the district’s violations

  • Didn’t consult students’ assessment teams to review progress and determine whether students continued to be disabled.
  • Didn’t provide parents information about their child’s primary language and language-proficiency status in their child’s assessment plan.
  • Didn’t hire interpreters to make sure parents understand what’s happening at assessment meetings.
  • Didn’t make sure that the education plans for students learning English met the language needs of the student, or ensured access to the general-education curriculum.
  • Didn’t make sure the education plans for students learning English included activities they needed to gain fluency.
  • Didn’t consider the language needs of students learning English, particularly when setting academic and fluency goals.
  • Didn’t show that assessments include information on how to help students return to, and make progress in, the general curriculum.
  • It didn’t provide the results of student assessments in the students’ primary languages.

Source: California Department of Education

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Beth Winegarner

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