School Beat: SFUSD Special Education Department Audit

by Katy Franklin on October 28, 2010

The Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative, a consulting firm based in Massachusetts, presented its Audit of Programs and Services in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to the San Francisco Board of Education on September 21st, 2010. The audit, in its entirety, may be found here: http://tinyurl.com/2b8apbm

The audit’s focus on inclusion and inclusive practices is refreshing and promising. SFUSD has a long way to go to fully include students receiving special education services and that change will not happen without strong leadership from central office administration and from principals at school sites. All stakeholders need to come to an agreement about what inclusion is, and form a clear and concise definition of what inclusive practices are, so everyone in the school community has no disagreements about it.

The Collaborative’s recommendation that SFUSD switch to a service delivery model instead of the program model it currently uses will greatly assist the push toward a more fully inclusive district. Years of trying to fit students into pre-existing programs has never worked well, and has often lead to increased segregation, inappropriate placements, and costly disputes. The new system would instead focus on what services students need to receive to be successful in school, and those services would be given to students at the schools they would attend if not disabled.

• Other recommendations in the audit that parents have long hoped to see SFUSD implement include:

• Articulating a unified vision for students receiving special education services that is consistent with SFUSD’s strategic plan.

• Giving families of students receiving special education services the same school attendance choices as all other students.

• Having the same high expectations for all students, including those receiving special education services.

• Helping principals and site administrators understand that they are responsible and accountable for all students in their schools, including those receiving special education services.

Many of the Collaborative’s recommendations are similar to recommendations made by the SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC SPED) over the last several years, as in the following:

The Collaborative recommendation, September 2010:
“The school district must conduct an in-depth analysis of its disproportionality percentages, and, in particular, why students of color are at significantly greater risk than other student to be identified as having selected disabilities.”

The CAC-SPED recommendation, in February, 2008:
“Create an oversight committee to monitor evaluations and assessments, ensuring that assessments cover every area of suspected disability, and that children are not being misidentified. For example, the number of African American and Latino students qualified under the “Emotional Disturbance” category is disproportionate to the percentage of African American and Latino students in the district as a whole.”

Demographic Context
The Collaborative reported that although only 12.3% of the School District Population is African American, African Americans represent 23.6% of students receiving special education services and 49.3% of students categorized with Emotional Disturbance (ED). As the audit chillingly states, “African American students are seven times more likely to be identified with emotional disturbance than all other groups.” Statistics from the California Department of Education for 2009-2010 that disaggregate special education program enrollment by ethnicity and type of disability only reinforce this and adding percentages to their raw numbers makes it even clearer.

Or, another way to view the statistics: 1 out of every 22 African American male students in SFUSD gets identified as being “Emotionally Disturbed”. However, “Emotionally Disturbed” (ED) is not a recognized psychiatric category, it is a term created by Congress. Because ED is not a psychiatric diagnosis, people making the identification do not have to be doctors or psychiatrists. Below is California’s legal definition, which shows what a loose and all encompassing category this is:

California Code of Regulations
5 CCR 3030 – Eligibility Criteria
(i) Because of a serious emotional disturbance, a pupil exhibits one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree, which adversely affect educational performance:
(1) An inability to learn which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
(2) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
(3) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances exhibited in several situations.
(4) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
(5) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

Such a broad category that isn’t recognized by the psychiatric profession should make us look hard at its application. Have all students been assessed in all areas of suspected disability? At the Board of Education meeting on 9/21/2010, when I suggested the possibility that students are being misdiagnosed, and how perhaps students in the “ED” category should be reevaluated by doctors, SFUSD’s attorney interjected, claiming that “they had no reason to believe that any students were misidentified.”

This reaction, while disappointing, is not unexpected from a district well known for being more concerned about not admitting guilt than it is about educating the students under its supervision. Further, it is disingenuous to claim misidentification could not somehow be a factor when the percentages of certain diagnoses are so alarmingly disproportionately distributed across ethnic groups, as shown in the table referenced above:

The legal ramifications of uncovering misdiagnoses would be great, but fears of legal liability should not hamper SFUSD’s efforts to properly identify and help these students. For instance, if a child has autism and was not treated for that autism at an early age, the “window” of opportunity where early intervention could have ameliorated much of autism’s ill effects (in social skills, communication, and behavior) has passed forever.

Admitting that such mistakes were made could result in civil lawsuits and costly compensatory services, but it’s the right thing to do for the children under the district’s care. The numbers are disparate enough to do more than raise eyebrows. Without an accurate diagnosis, the students will not get the right help. Is this racial profiling, SFUSD style?

2009 numbers:
• 1 out of 43 white students in SFUSD has autism.
• 1 out of 101 Asian American students in SFUSD has autism.
• 1 out of 150 African American students in SFUSD has autism.
• 1 out of 157 Latino American students in SFUSD has autism.

Similar statistics I used in an article a few years ago (see p.4) shows there has been progress in balancing out identification of autism across racial lines, however, autism cases went up 41% in SFUSD in the same time period, and white students are still extremely disproportionately identified.

2007 numbers:
• 1 out of 50 white students in SFUSD has autism.
• 1 out of 161 Asian American students in SFUSD has autism.
• 1 out of 200 African American students in SFUSD has autism.
• 1 out of 217 Latino American students in SFUSD has autism.

*Source: California Department of Education

Children from low-income families are especially vulnerable to misidentification, because they rely solely on SFUSD assessments and evaluations. More affluent parents tend to have their children assessed by doctors and psychiatrists.

Sadly, not much about the audit was surprising to parents of children receiving special education services. What was surprising was the complete omission from the report of any data about the cost of special education legal disputes, and a discussion of the main causes of those disputes. In a recent case, SFUSD paid over $68,000 to a law firm in Los Angeles to try to deny $18,000 worth of tutoring services to a 4th grade student who still could not read. Wouldn’t taxpayers rather see school funds being used to help students instead of making law firms richer, especially if the cost was four times less and the money was spent actually trying to help a student? It was this sort of “deny services no matter what the cost” mentality from District staff that parents hoped would be really looked into, and the fact that it was not is a disappointment.

Also missing from the report was an analysis of SFUSD’s secondary transition services. Students from age 14 to 22 are supposed to be getting age-appropriate transition assessments and services related to education, employment, and independent living skills, to assist them with their transition to life after they get out of school. This area of service to students is often overlooked.

The Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative’s audit will be useful as a blueprint for addressing the existing inequities, lack of access, and poor educational outcomes students receiving special education services in SFUSD currently face. The audit is a positive step forward.

Katy Franklin is an SFUSD parent and the Chair of the SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education.

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