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Friday, Oct. 9, 2009 | Jaime Hernandez pored over the files of hundreds of children who were diagnosed with disabilities in San Diego Unified to figure out what was going wrong. Why were African American children and English learners so much more likely to be tagged as disabled? Were schools following the right steps?

Hernandez was hired as a consultant by San Diego Unified to puzzle that out. He had done similar studies in Los Angeles as the research director for the Office of the Independent Monitor, which was appointed by a federal court to make sure that Los Angeles schools are properly serving students with disabilities. Schools there have cut down on the number of students who are dubbed “emotionally disturbed” — but black children are still more likely to get the label.

Hernandez, a former teacher and school psychologist, sat down with voiceofsandiego.org to talk about his findings and how schools can change the way they handle misbehavior in the classroom.

One of the key findings from your report was that San Diego Unified focuses more on punishment than on support for students, especially with behavioral issues. What are some of the concrete signs of that problem?

The high rates of suspensions and expulsion meetings — students being referred for expulsions. I found that schools often referred to the zero tolerance policy, even though some of the students did not commit offenses that were mandatory expulsions.

Can you give me some examples?

Sure. Bringing a gun to school or brandishing a knife is considered a mandatory type of expulsion. Bringing a knife or having possession of a knife is not.

What seemed to be happening is the students were caught doing these offenses or violating some school rule, they were referred to special education for an emotional disturbance, and they were being transferred into community day school or a different type of placement while being expelled.

Now that may be appropriate in some cases, but I think one of the things that the district needs to do is look at their policies and how it may be leading to overrepresentation (of minority students).

Why would those practices impact African American students or English learners more than other students?

We don’t really know the answer to that. What we know is that students of different races and ethnicities, such as African American students, are being referred at higher rates. And what we now know from San Diego and Los Angeles is that once a student is referred, the process looks pretty much equal for all kids. It leads to an identification, and that leads to a change in placement (what school or program a child goes to).

You’re saying that the inequity is in the referral — not what happens after the referral.

Correct. One of the things that we focus on is addressing inequities through improving the referral and identification process, and in turn, that improves it for all kids. In Los Angeles we’ve seen drops in the number of students identified with emotional disturbance — but we’ve seen them across all races and ethnicities. So you still have overrepresentation.

It’s an interesting question that we need to solve, because our measures for overrepresentation are still telling us we’re doing this wrong, when we know we’ve cleaned up the process for all kids.

I can imagine someone asking, “How do we know that there aren’t just more African American children with emotional disturbance?” Is emotional disturbance supposed to be an inherent characteristic as opposed to something that happens to a child?

Schools are treating this as an intrinsic deficit. And this isn’t unique to San Diego — it’s typical for special education. So typically a student is referred and schools start looking at, “What deficits does a child have?” You test to find deficits. You’re basically referring and assessing to find a disability.

One of the things I emphasize in this report is that, you’ve got to start ruling out disabilities. Because it’s easy to find one. It’s much harder to rule something out by looking at the whole child.

What are some of the risks if a child is inappropriately identified because the school isn’t looking at things like how many times they’ve been moved or what’s been going on in the classroom?

This is where we need to start thinking about special education a little differently. If you look back over the last 40 years, there’s not much evidence that special education is helping kids with disabilities close the achievement gap. Kids with disabilities still have higher rates of suspensions and lower rates of graduation.

There’s evidence out there that you don’t really fare much better by being in special education. The other thing is, special education has traditionally been a life sentence. You don’t see a lot of kids being exited out of special education.

Because we think of these things as intrinsic qualities? Either you’re disabled or you’re not?

Well, that should be the question, either you’re disabled or you’re not. Typically how that’s been blurred is, either you need supports and services or you don’t.

Now, you may need supports and services — but that doesn’t mean you’re disabled. A student may be having behavioral difficulties because of things happening in the home, but they’re not disabled.

I know you can’t talk about individual cases or names, but as you went through the files, were there any stories that particularly struck you?

We saw instances where students who had just recently come to this country were exhibiting behavioral difficulties. They were refugees from other countries. A few red flags pop up: This child is transitioning into another culture, there could be some incongruencies with the teachers and how they perceive their behaviors, there could be issues of language, there could be issues of schooling, their prior schooling in their own country, what kinds of things did they experience coming as a refugee — those are things that pop out.

We saw enough cases where a child had lost a parent, either through death or by divorce, they were going to a new school and months later they’re being referred and being assessed.

— Interview conducted and edited by EMILY ALPERT

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