Buried in all the documents for the school board meeting next Tuesday is a disturbing report on why San Diego Unified identifies so many black students and English learners for special education.

This isn’t a surprise: Another expert studied San Diego Unified two years ago and found that black children are disproportionately likely to be labeled as emotionally disturbed and English learners also make up a disproportionate part of special education classes. Harvard professor Thomas Hehir worried that students shunted into separate classes might be underserved compared to if they had stayed in mainstream classes and been given extra help.

But the report sheds light on why, exactly, this seems to be happening. The “current system focuses on identification rather than prevention and punishment rather than support,” wrote Jaime Hernandez, a consultant hired by the school district to examine the problem. His findings include:

  • The school district doesn’t have good ways to help children with behavioral and academic problems in ordinary classrooms. It relies too heavily on punishments to discipline kids, instead of methods that reward and teach children how to behave, like this one used at Edison Elementary.
  • Kids are identified remarkably early for special education, which Hernandez believes shows that schools are relying too heavily on special education to intervene when kids struggle.
  • The teams of educators and parents that get together to decide how children with disabilities should be helped don’t consider “exclusionary factors” that might mean that a behavioral problem or academic struggle is based on something else, such as stress from moving to a new school. Hernandez writes that this is especially important for poor families and families of color.
  • There aren’t enough options for places to educate children with emotional disturbance, especially places that are less segregated and restrictive. The high number of kids with emotional disturbance that are sent to separate classrooms and schools indicates to Hernandez that the process of identifying children as emotionally disturbed is “driven by placement” — where the child is sent.

Hernandez recommends that San Diego Unified expand programs such as the one at Edison Elementary (read our article for more details) and develop more ways to intervene and help children before they are diagnosed with a disability to prevent “inappropriate referrals.”

The school district is planning to use some of the $13.7 million in federal stimulus dollars that are earmarked specifically for special education to put Hernandez’ recommendations into action. To read the full report, click here.


Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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