Sacramento County schools classify fewer students as emotionally disturbed

Sacramento County school districts are classifying fewer students as emotionally disturbed, though the county rate per 1,000 students is still far higher than the state average.

County school districts designated about 1,530 students as emotionally disturbed in 2013-14, down from 2,060 in 2008-09, according to the California Department of Education.

The number of African American students with the classification fell from 655 to 438 during the same period. That decline is significant because the county’s four largest districts received warning letters in 2012 that a disproportionate number of African American students were designated emotionally disturbed and moved to special education classes.

Critics have warned that such disparities may reflect discrimination or cultural bias rather than legitimate psychological problems.

“The over-representation of African Americans in special education, particularly young black men being designated as emotionally disturbed, has been well documented and is very troubling,” said Ryan Smith, executive director of The Education Trust-West, a research group that focuses on low-income minority students. “Sacramento is taking the right steps necessary to erase the racial bias that can happen when assessing these students.”

Sacramento County special education leaders say districts have reduced the number of students identified as emotionally disturbed by increasing programs that reinforce positive behavior, adding mental health staff and improving cultural awareness to avoid jumping to conclusions about a child’s mental health.

Districts rely on licensed psychologists, as well as classroom observations and academic testing, to designate a student as emotionally disturbed. Parents, teachers, school staff and law enforcement can request an evaluation. Students who are identified as emotionally disturbed are eligible for counseling and other services.

Elk Grove Unified, the county’s largest school district, has started an aggressive program that includes increased staff support for students, as well as high expectations for student behavior. It has lowered the number of students labeled emotionally disturbed by nearly 20 percent over five years.

Positive Behavior Intervention Support programs, which create a culture of defined expectations for behavior, are being implemented at all district schools, said Bill Tollestrup, the district’s special education director. Only six schools have yet to begin the program.

He said that teachers, staff, parents and students understand the expectations and the consequences if they aren’t followed. The expectations are posted in the hallways, bathrooms and common areas of each school.

The district is so serious about the approach that its school board members will undergo training in an effort to model the positive behavior “from the top down,” Tollestrup said.

The district has also added mental health therapists, school psychologists and behaviorists to provide support that can immediately address a student’s issues, Tollestrup said. The goal is to “ferret out what is a behavioral issue and what is an emotional illness,” he said.

San Juan Unified School District is using a similar approach. “A lot of time when students get the support they need, they learn the skills to manage their own behavior,” said Shelley Ellinghouse, the district’s special education director.

Twin Rivers Unified and Elk Grove Unified are offering training to staff to help them understand potential cultural differences between themselves and their students.

Sacramento City Unified has reviewed how it assesses students for mental illness and is working to ensure all possibilities are considered before it designates a student as emotionally disturbed, said district spokesman Gabe Ross.

“You want the ED designation to be the last resort,” he said.

Such efforts began in earnest after state officials told four of the county’s largest school districts – Sacramento City, Elk Grove, Twin Rivers and San Juan – in 2012 that they had a significantly disproportionate number of African Americans designated emotionally disturbed. The districts ranked among the top seven in California based on overall percentage of students designated emotionally disturbed.

California school districts receive letters every year telling them whether they have a “disproportionate” number of students of any particular race with the designation. If they have that situation for three years, they are told they are “significantly disproportionate” and required to spend 15 percent of their special education funding on preventive programs.

The state warns districts to make sure that they don’t place students in special education without recognized disabilities.

San Juan Unified was the only district to remain “significantly disproportionate” in 2011-12 and 2012-13, according to information from the California Department of Education.

In Elk Grove Unified, Tollestrup said students with “severe conduct issues” were often designated as emotionally disturbed in order to get funding and other support for them. “Unfortunately, that designation has negative consequences for the child, and we don’t want to go that way,” he said.

Despite the efforts, the number of Sacramento County students designated as emotionally disturbed in 2013-14 was still far higher then the state average, with 6.3 of every 1,000 students in the county designated emotionally disturbed, compared to 3.9 statewide. Roughly 14 of every 1,000 African American students in the county were designated emotionally disturbed, compared to 11 per 1,000 statewide.

Even with the decline in numbers, black students in Sacramento County remain almost three times as likely to be designated as emotionally disturbed and placed in special education as other students.

“I‘m happy to see they are started on the right direction, but this isn’t a conversation that is solely a Sacramento issue,” Smith said. “There needs to be a state-level and national-level discussion.”

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.