The problem isn’t unique to San Diego. Across the nation, black and Latino students are over-represented in special education programs, often misidentified as having disabilities based on the way they behave or speak.

What’s different about San Diego Unified is that it’s aware of the problem, and about five years ago it set in motion a plan to fix the shortcomings.

At the time, the district’s superintendent, Carl Cohn, hired a Harvard professor named Thomas Hehir to assess the way San Diego Unified delivered its special education services. In the resulting report, Hehir wrote that the disproportionality in the district “is a serious issue that raises civil rights concerns.”

At the time, black students were 1.5 times more likely to have a disability as the rest of the population. Especially concerning to Hehir was the number of black students in the district determined to be “emotionally disturbed.”

“This practice potentially carries more negative consequences for the student and the district,” he wrote. “There is significant stigma attached to these programs which in turn may result in low self-esteem and discrimination.”

Since the report was published, the district has taken action. It created a detailed plan to lower the overall number of black and Latino students in special education, appointed a reform-focused oversight committee and trained staff to strategize ways to help students before they’re referred to these programs.

In many ways, the efforts are helping. The overall number of students in special education has gone down since 2007, and special education numbers are now more racially proportionate.

Chief student services officer Joe Fulcher said he’s proud of his team and the progress they’ve made, but that there’s still work to be done.

While the margin has shrunk since 2007, black students are still being referred to special education at a higher rate that the rest of the student population. About one in nine district students was considered to have a disability last year. For black students, the ratio is one in six.

“This issue isn’t going away overnight, but I feel very comfortable saying that in the next two years, through our continued efforts, we’re not going to see these disproportionate numbers at all,” said Fulcher.

Signs of Progress

At the core of special education is a straightforward ideal: All students with physical, intellectual or emotional limitations can be successful if given the right kind of support.

But determining whether a student has a disability isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.

Certain disabilities like deafness, blindness or severe forms of autism are easier to determine than those experts sometimes refer to as “socially constructed disabilities” — those based in part on behavior or academic performance — which can be more of a judgment call.

Special education professionals are supposed to screen out students whose limitations are based on poverty or environmental factors — things that can be helped through more traditional means of support.

But the worry for experts like Dan Losen, a director at the Civil Rights Project of UCLA, is that perceptions about a student’s race or ethnicity may be part of the reason that black and Latino students are over-represented in special education.

Gerald Brown, executive director of a faith-based social justice organization, said he’s noticed signs of progress in the district, and that “slowly but surely, folks seem to be opening their minds.”

He credits Superintendent Cindy Marten in part, who he said has taken time to get to know and listen to students and parents of color. He credits the district’s efforts to invite more parents into the conversation.

But he’s still worried about the damage that’s done to black students, especially young males, when they’re unnecessarily placed in special education services. Black and Latino males, he said, are on the “fast-track to prison,” and that we need to have a sense of urgency when we talk about reform.

“When you have a culture that hasn’t taken the time to understand a culture, there’s going to be the push to exclude this group. What we don’t understand, we exclude,” he said.

If students are misidentified as having a disability, they have an increased risk of being suspended, expelled or dropping out of school. In the district’s policies manual, teachers are urged not to recommend students for suspension if their behavior is based on a disability.

But as recently as 2011-2012, students with disabilities were suspended at three times the rate of students in general population. For black males with disabilities, the stats were even more sobering.

Here are a couple of other areas that still need work:

Dropouts and Graduates

In 2011-2012, the most recent data available from the California Department of Education, only 54 percent of students with disabilities graduated with their cohort. More than 12 percent dropped out, and others stayed enrolled to possibly graduate the following year.

Fulcher said that low graduation rates for students with disabilities is a concern and a focus point for his team, but that the 54 percent figure doesn’t reflect the many students who remain in school to graduate high school after their fifth or sixth years.

Test Scores

After the initial report that laid bare critical issues, Hehir wrote a follow-up. In it, he stressed the central motivation behind the proposed reforms to special education: improved student outcomes.

“The improvement of student achievement levels needs to be the central focus of special education reform. Low performance levels place students in jeopardy of dropping out and failing to graduate,” he wrote.

While some students have severe limitations and “cannot be expected to score in high ranges, most students with disabilities have intelligence within normal ranges,” Hehir wrote. “The district’s low performance levels “should be considered unacceptable.”

Overall, scores on the California Standards Test have continued to slowly improve since 2008. This is true for students with disabilities as well, though their progress has been slower.

In fact, the gap between students with disabilities and the rest of the population has widened a bit since 2007.

Fulcher said that CST scores for students with disabilities fell a bit in 2012-2013, and that his team is looking into the reasons why. But overall, he said, this was a departure from an upward trend.

“We’ve always seen this as a civil rights issue,” said Fulcher. “We need to make sure all students are exposed to the same rigorous standards.”

“I’m not in this profession to say, ‘Look, you almost made it.’ I’m in this position to see kids graduate,” Fulcher said.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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