Sacramento County's four largest school districts are among dozens in California that have gotten letters from the state saying they have a disproportionate number of African American students in their special education programs who are designated as emotionally disturbed.
The state sent a letter to 49 school districts in July telling them that their special education classes were "significantly disproportionate" racially during a four-year period that ended last year.
Twin Rivers Unified, Elk Grove Unified, San Juan Unified and Sacramento City Unified all were told they had an unusually high percentage of African American students in their special education programs, particularly in classes for the emotionally disturbed.
About one of every 35 black students in San Juan Unified 101 total have been classified as "emotionally disturbed," compared with one out of 80 statewide, according to data from the California Department of Education from December 2011.
Sacramento City Unified, Elk Grove Unified and Twin Rivers Unified also exceeded the statewide average.
The high percentage of students designated emotionally disturbed in Sacramento County isn't limited to African Americans, although their numbers are the most overrepresented. San Juan, Elk Grove, Sacramento City and Twin Rivers are among the seven California school districts with the highest overall percentage of students identified as emotionally disturbed, according to the 2011 data.
San Juan tops the list. About 11 of every 1,000 students in San Juan Unified 551 in all were designated emotionally disturbed in 2011, roughly 2 1/2 times the state average. None of the other 40 largest school districts in the state had a higher rate of students labeled emotionally disturbed.
The letters from the state, sent out annually, warn districts if they have a "disproportionate" or "significantly disproportionate" number of students of any particular race in special education classes over a four-year period. The aim is to make sure districts are not putting students in special education who don't have recognized disabilities but might be struggling for other reasons.
"They need to review their policies, procedures and practices to make sure there isn't any bias or discrimination," said Fred Balcom, director of special education programs for the California Department of Education.
In 2004, Congress expressed concern about the high number of minority children in the nation's special education programs. It directed states to require school districts singled out as "significantly disproportionate" to dedicate 15 percent of their federal allotment for educating special education students to preventive programs. That's about $5 million for the four local districts.
The districts also must come up with intervention plans that will be monitored by the state.
In past years only about 20 districts a year in California were hit with the "significantly disproportionate" tag, Balcom said. But a new federal formula for determining when districts are out of compliance more than doubled the number facing sanctions.
Standard evaluations used
Officials at the four local districts all defended their systems for identifying students as emotionally disturbed, saying they used standard evaluation procedures. But they also said they are aware that African American students are overrepresented in special education programs and have been working to lower the numbers.
In fact, districts statewide have seen their overall numbers of emotionally disturbed students fall in recent years. San Juan saw an 8 percent decline over five years. It wasn't enough, however, to keep the district out of the "significantly disproportionate" category after the federal government changed the way it is calculated.
Still, several experts interviewed found the local numbers alarming and spoke of a cultural bias they say pervades many schools.
"There is a disproportionate number of African American boys. Why that category?" said Diana Blackmon, director of special services for the Washington Unified School District in West Sacramento. "We certainly don't see it with autism, retardation or deafness. That, off the top, leads me to think something more is going on."
Washington Unified did not receive a warning letter. The district of 7,100 students has 17 designated emotionally disturbed, two of them African American.
Blackmon, who also served as a special education consultant for the state Department of Education, said that students labeled emotionally disturbed often simply have behavior problems.
A large number are foster youths who have been through horrific life trauma, she said. "Many are the average defiant kid that tosses a chair over but doesn't hurt anyone," she said. "Sometimes educators aren't prepared to deal with these kids."
Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, a research group that focuses on poor, minority students, echoed Blackmon, saying the special ed label was being misapplied to students who may present a challenge for teachers for other reasons.
"Designating a student as emotionally disturbed is an easy way to exit a troublesome child out of school," Ramanathan said. "It's a good way to move a kid from the school and into a special-day classroom."
Bill Tollestrup, director of special education from Elk Grove Unified, calls the problem a cultural issue that goes beyond special education. He said test scores of African American students aren't increasing as quickly as other groups and that many African American males end up in the penal system.
He said the Elk Grove district is looking at students referred for "willful defiance," for example, to determine whether the child is really a behavior problem or has a teacher who doesn't understand how to interact with an African American student.
Officials at the four local districts stressed that they use standardized protocols in assessing students. Students are identified as emotionally disturbed only by a licensed psychologist. Districts often pair that with classroom observations and academic testing. Parents, teachers, school staff and law enforcement personnel can request such an evaluation, and the information is evaluated by a team that usually includes the parent.
The criteria for designating a student as emotionally disturbed are broad. Among them: an inability to learn that can't be explained by intellectual or health factors; an inability to maintain interpersonal relationships; inappropriate behavior; and depression.
Once identified as emotionally disturbed, students qualify for an array of services and counseling. That can range from spending a set amount of time each day with a resource teacher to attending therapeutic centers that offer small classes and specially trained teachers.
The specialized services are often sought out by probation and juvenile court officers looking for support and structure for students who have gotten into trouble, district officials said.
"They are trying to get them some protection from the disciplinary structure of schools," said Tom Janis, assistant superintendent at Twin Rivers Unified. "They are going into classes with very supportive teachers."
Maxine Johnson, who is African American, said she's grateful for the services San Juan Unified provided her daughter after she was designated emotionally disturbed a few years ago. Johnson said La Vista Center, a district school for students with emotional issues, helped her daughter, who had become a discipline problem.
Johnson said her daughter thrived at La Vista. She eventually transferred to Mira Loma High School, where she graduated. She's now waiting to be accepted into the Navy.
"La Vista is a wonderful school, and the teachers are wonderful," Maxine Johnson said. "They really helped my daughter and she is really, really bullheaded."
Blackmon and Ramanathan acknowledged that educators are usually trying to help students get services they believe those students need when they designate them emotionally disturbed. But they say the label can be harmful and has ramifications that extend beyond schooling.
"It follows them all the way through life," Ramanthan said.
Blackmon said Washington Unified has reduced the number of students designated emotionally disturbed by offering counseling, support groups, anger management and academic intervention before placing students in special education.
She said it is just as easy to offer students services without labeling them: "Either way, you have to pay."
Districts with a "significantly disproportionate" letter have until Dec. 21 to submit an action plan to the state, said Patricia Skelton, administrator of the state's Special Education Division.
Most are busy forming committees and sifting through data to formulate a plan. They aren't on their own, Skelton said. The Department of Education offered a training session last week, and each district is paired with a state monitor.
"It's not a year fix," Skelton said. "You may not see a lot of improvement for a year or two."