Black special needs students struggle in Sacramento schools. A new plan wants to change that

Rita Hay hopes change is in the air, but her memories are long.

Years ago, her eldest children were special needs students in Sacramento City Unified School District schools. She was so distressed at the lack of instruction and care they received, Hay said, that she ultimately took matters into her own hands, packing up home and kids for better care in another district.

“I had to physically move to get them out of Sacramento City Unified School District,” she said last week.

Now, with son Israel, a bespectacled 8-year-old, who connects with the world through the book-sized communication tablet he clutches close, she expressed her hesitance: “I don’t want to have to do that again.”

The disappointment has spanned years for her. Hay has lived the experience of so many Black parents of children with special needs in the school district: inconsistent instruction, uneven discipline, roadblocks to services and poor communication between teachers and parents

Gregory Peters, the Bay Area schools reform leader and executive director of education equity advocacy San Francisco Coalition of Essential Small Schools seeks to change that.

Peters steps into the position after decades of Black parents’ frustration and tearful listening sessions, a four-year long court fight, and, finally, a landmark agreement in May between Sacramento education equity advocates Black Parallel School Board and Sacramento City Unified. It equates to a five-year plan of action unveiled last week that will work to undo a legacy of mistreatment.

A crucial piece: the independent monitor selected by Black Parallel School Board and Sacramento City Unified School Board. Peters was approved by district board members at a special session last week to craft and oversee the plan.

About 6,000 students with identified disabilities are enrolled in Sacramento City Unified schools. One-fifth of those, about 1,200, are Black.

The plan will focus on substantially reducing the numbers of Black students with disabilities who are suspended and expelled from district schools and the placement of Black students with disabilities in segregated settings.

It will also target the bullying and harassment of Black students with disabilities, all while shrinking the numbers of Black students who are over- or under-identified for special education.

Other goals include narrowing the ratio of mental health professionals to students and both increasing and improving training for district teachers.

“The work begins anew, so we have an opportunity. The system is broken, severely broken, and we’ve got to find a way to make sure the kids with needs — special needs — get the services they need,” said Darryl White, Black Parallel School Board chair and a former school administrator in San Diego and Sacramento.

The community organization provides support, assistance and advocacy for Black children in Sacramento City Unified schools and acts as a watchdog of the district’s activities and programs to ensure they match the needs of its Black students.

“When our special ed kids become seniors, it’s our expectation that they graduate with the skill base that other kids have, and that’s not the case,” White added. “The system has failed them by the time they get to graduation. We do well with some, but not all. That’s where disproportionality comes in.”

120 days to draft and begin change

The work to change that trajectory is on a fast track. Peters has 60 days to draft the five-year plan and present it to the board and district. That’ll be followed by another 60 days to finalize the document.

The plan must substantially reduce disciplinary referrals of Black students with disabilities, including undocumented informal suspensions, or “soft suspensions.” The plan will address the overall and disproportionate use of restraints and seclusion of students with disabilities.

Black students with disabilities were nearly three times more likely to be suspended from district classrooms than all other students with disabilities, an independent 2017 audit of the district’s services to disabled students revealed. The data didn’t account for the undocumented “soft suspensions” that deprive students of valuable classroom time.

The 2017 audit laid valuable groundwork for the Black Parallel School Board’s lawsuit that led to the plan.

“How do we change these policies and practices?” Yvonne Wright, the district’s chief academic officer, said at a town hall last Tuesday. With the undocumented suspensions, “students are being excluded from classes, but they’re also being excluded from learning. If I do that three or four times a month, there’s a layering effect. He’s losing instruction.”

The independent monitor will also see that district instructors appropriately identify Black students with disabilities without over- or under-identifying students for special education, and ensure those students are assessed in a timely manner.

Inclusion for students with disabilities

Roughly half of district students with disabilities learn in segregated settings, the report showed, separating students with mental health conditions, autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disabilities at rates far exceeding state and nationwide averages. Black students saw the highest rates of segregated placements.

The plan will boost the numbers of students with disabilities, particularly Black students, in inclusive, integrated classrooms, schools and school settings.

“It’s not just a special education issue,” Wright, the district’s chief academic officer said Tuesday. “We need to focus on who is not succeeding and what we do about it. When do we start addressing the problem?”

The question is long overdue and now may at last find answers. Parents like Hay say an independent monitor can help assure that.

The district “will have other eyes on them,” Hay said. “Maybe they’ll step up and do what they need to do.”

“The independent monitor will be around long enough to get some of this stuff done,” White said later. “If they don’t get it done in five years, they’re going to be here a little longer.”

Parents seek answers, information and accountability

At the painful 2018 listening sessions that led to the lawsuit against the district, parents voiced their frustration.

“There were no dry eyes. Parents were so frustrated at what had happened to them,” White said during a virtual town hall in mid-September. “What do you do for a student you know as special? Parents who are African-American weren’t steered in the right direction. Black parents weren’t at the table.”

That must change, White told The Bee.

“Our special education parents have got to know what it is they need to do. They’ve got to know how to participate in processes and programs that help their kids,” White said.