This is part of an ongoing series “Learning while black: The fight for equity in San Francisco schools.”
African American students across the country are much more likely than any other student group to be placed in special education, and that’s true at San Francisco Unified too. The district’s troubled history has plenty to teach us about what is and isn’t working for black students with special needs today.
In a Bayview school auditorium, African American parents are gathered to share some pizza and talk about special education. Plenty of black families have to navigate that system. Because today, nearly one in three black students in San Francisco Unified schools is in special ed, district data show, compared to one in eight non-black students.
Nearly all the black parents in the room tonight have advocated for special ed services for their kids, but none are happy with the system. And there are plenty of tears.
Just deciding to seek a special ed label for her African American son, one mom says as her voice cracks, “knowing everything that comes along with that, was really hard for me.”
What comes along with that is a history of black students perceived as troublemakers, and steered into categories of special ed that don’t fit or meet their needs.
Federal law dictates that special ed students get an Individualized Education Program or IEP. It spells out their struggles and the support they’ll get, like one-on-one instruction, extra time on tests, therapy or a one-on-one aide. Even though her son’s paperwork identified his main issue as difficulty understanding directions, this mom shares, he’s been routinely chastised for it.
Research has shown that boys are especially likely to be mislabeled and misunderstood for what adults at school perceive as aggression or defiance, but the group’s facilitator, Mauricha Robinson, tells the group that can be true for girls, too.
Robinson, who co-chairs the district’s African American Parent Advisory Council, says it took her two years to get her daughter assessed for what turned out to be a cognitive issue. All that time, she says, the school had labeled the girl as “a cut up,” focusing on “how do we curb the behavior, behavior, behavior — and it was all punitive.”
Another mom weeps openly. As a low-income black parent, she says, just trying to be heard around what she thinks her autistic son needs is exhausting.
“I’m so tired of fighting against a system that is supposed to be erected to help my child,” she says. “I’m sick of it. I don’t think that we can move forward until we stop pretending. We’ve been band-aiding this for decades.”
A lot has improved at San Francisco Unified, but to understand these parents’ despair it helps to know some history.
It was here in San Francisco that a group of African American students in 1971 challenged the mandated use of IQ tests statewide to disproportionately steer black students into special ed.
Black community concern over the use of the tests — viewed as culturally biased — had bubbled up three years earlier when a group of black psychologists broke off from the American Psychological Association to form their own organization. Harold Dent, now 90, was among the founders of the Association of Black Psychologists and its Bay Area chapter in 1968. Not long after, he said, black parents started showing up at San Francisco’s Urban League office, upset that their children were “being called retarded when they didn’t believe their children were retarded.”
Dent and his colleagues tried negotiating — with district and state officials — but the talks went nowhere. So at the urging of local civil rights lawyers, they sued.
The legal case, Larry P versus California’s then-state superintendent of instruction, is the subject of a lot of academic articles and plenty of debate — to this day.
Larry P. was the pseudonym given to the main plaintiff, to protect his privacy. He was one of six black students labeled “Educable Mentally Retarded” who filed suit in federal court against the district and the state. Enrollment in that special ed category peaked statewide in 1968 — at nearly 60,000 students. More than a quarter of students in that special ed category were African American, even though black students made up less than ten percent of the student body. The year before the judge ruled, SFUSD’s ratio was even more extreme: half the kids in that category were African American.
The disproportionality was due in part to the fact that, as a group, African American students performed more poorly on IQ tests. The court would eventually conclude those tests were biased toward knowledge the students hadn’t acquired, for cultural reasons and because many got inferior educations at inferior schools.
Once they landed in special ed, U.S. District Judge Robert Peckham wrote in his 1979 ruling, they were doomed to fall “farther and farther behind,” because instead of academics, their classes emphasized “personal hygiene and grooming,” “social and emotional adjustment” and “basic home and community living skills.” The district had presented its special ed system as color-blind, but Peckham made it clear: It wasn’t.
The category of “Educable Mentally Retarded” went away by the mid-1980s and after some legal wrangling the court lifted the testing ban, but state education officials didn’t. Because of the Larry P case, California still prohibits the use of intelligence testing on Black students — for any kind of special ed placement. It’s the only state that does that.
Lots of people talk about Larry P, the case. But what about Larry P. the man? No one seemed to know what became of the kids who sued. A visit to William Thomas, another elderly black psychologist, offered a clue. Thomas, who wrote a book about the case, recalled in an interview that Larry P. and his mom had moved to Tacoma, Washington and went public with their real names when they came back to testify in the case.
A 1977 newspaper clipping confirms that his true name was Darryl Lester.
He’s easy to find. He’s 60 years old now, still in Tacoma. Until now it turns out, no one has ever asked him to tell his story. The judge had said the whole class of plaintiffs was mistreated, robbed of an education. What kind of scars did they carry?
Darryl Lester and his wife, Cecilia, live in a housing project redeveloped not long ago into a neighborhood of two-story townhouses. Their place is homey, covered in family photos, with a plush sectional sofa that takes up much of the living room.
Lester explains that he never knew his pseudonym was Larry P. And he had no idea that the case had a lasting impact. But he says memories of school have been popping in his brain. Right before first grade, he and his mom and brothers moved to San Francisco from Marietta, Georgia because “she didn't want to find us dead one day, hanging by a tree.”
He fell behind fast. He says he was “very good in math,” but it turns out, he did have a learning difficulty, a really specific one. He struggled with reading. He never got the help he needed, but he did get teased, he got angry, and he got suspended, a lot. That's common. To this day, black students in special ed — especially boys — are kicked out of the classroom more than just about any other student group.
“They said that I was illiterate,” he says. “That’s gonna make any kid feel bad. You know, he’s gonna lash out.”
Lester says that when the family moved to public housing in Hunter’s Point — to be close to his new school — his education got even worse.
“I walked to school and cried all the way. I just didn't like it. He says, he felt like he wasn’t learning anything.
There was lots of recess time, and field trips, Lester says, but pretty much no instruction. Lester didn’t know it at the time, but his mom was one of the black parents working to sue the district. He never got any benefit from the suit, though, because the year the case was filed, mom took the boys and moved north to Tacoma.
The judge had noted in his ruling that kids placed in dead-end classes fall further and further behind, and that’s what happened to Darryl Lester. Before starting at his new high school, he took placement tests — and failed. That’s when he was told he’d be entering a special ed program again. He was told to report each morning — to Safeway — in order to earn school credits.
Lester says he worked for free from 7:30 to 11 a.m. every morning, before attending a few classes in the back of the high school. After a while, his family protested, and the school put him in with the general population. He tried hard. Went to summer school and night school. Even though he walked in his graduation ceremony he later found out he was two credits short of a diploma.
“It’s like, what did I go to school for?” he says. “I didn’t learn anything.”
Darryl Lester never got his GED. He says he just felt too burned by the system and, ” I was so angry. I was basically embarrassed of myself because there was things I needed to learn, that I didn’t learn.”
What followed for him was addiction, low-wage jobs and hard physical labor in the aluminum industry that left him disabled. His reading skills remained so poor that he threw out the workers' comp letter letting him know he’d been awarded benefits. His wife, Cecilia Lester, was there, with her mom, and wound up retrieving it from the trash
“And she said, ‘Mom, mom. Darryl's throwing away money.’ I didn't know,” he says. “Let's go back to my reading. You know, that's where a lot of that takes place, like when I get my mail and stuff.”
Darryl Lester’s just one man, but as Larry P, he represented a huge legal class of California’s black students. There are no doubt many more like him who’ve struggled with dead-end jobs and low self-worth. The damage didn’t end with them. The judge made districts reassess all African American special ed students statewide — without IQ tests — and the numbers dropped a lot.
But black kids still wound up in special ed way more than other students. In new categories — of “specific learning disability,” “emotional disturbance,” and more recently, “other health impairment.” That includes ADD and ADHD. Kids who’ve experienced trauma are sometimes misdiagnosed with that — and mistakenly labeled emotionally disturbed, because those categories are more subjective, more susceptible to implicit bias.
In 2010, an audit of San Francisco Unified found that black students made up a little over a tenth of the district’s student body, but a fourth of special ed students. That’s the same disproportionality that the judge in the Larry P case had condemned statewide — from 1968. The audit also found that black San Francisco Unified students made up half the students deemed “emotionally disturbed,” and they were much more likely to be placed in segregated schools or classes.
Jean Robertson, San Francisco Unified’s chief of special ed services, said the audit “was transformative . . . It was a big ‘aha.’”
Since then, she says, the district’s changed its whole approach: to support more struggling students early on, so they never land in special ed; do deeper assessments that take a child’s whole life story into account; and to try to better tailor services to each special ed student, instead of putting them in cookie cutter programs.
There has been progress. The district’s entire black student population has dropped a lot since that 2010 audit, but the number of black students in special ed has gone down more than twice as much. Back then, black students were eight-and-a-half times more likely than non-black students to be labeled “emotionally disturbed.” That’s down to just under four-and-a-half times more likely. African American special ed students are much less likely to be segregated in special schools today. And the district is pushing towards what’s known as full inclusion — keeping special ed students in regular classes for most of the day.
All that, and still, Robertson says, “It’s absolutely out there, disproportionality.“
In part because of that, the California Association of School Psychologists is pushing state education officials to lift the ban on intelligence testing for African American students imposed in the Larry P. case. They say that it hasn’t solved the problem of disproportionality and “places school psychologists in the untenable position of being required to perform assessments that are substantively different for students whose skin happens to be black compared to other groups.” Tests and the training of those who administer them have evolved, they say. The Association of Black Psychologists maintains the tests remain biased and should not be used.
But disproportionality doesn’t necessarily mean that black students don’t need special education services.
“That’s the crux of my tension in this work,” says Robertson, “is who do we identify? who do we not identify? what is a good referral? what’s not a good referral? That is with me every single day, particularly for black children.”
Even if a student doesn’t qualify for special ed, Robertson says, the district still needs to provide the kind of support that can help that child do well in school, not just academically but socially and emotionally. That’s the goal. There are some bright spots, where it seems to be working.
On a recent day, students at Downtown High School are giving an end-of-the-semester presentation. Downtown is a continuation school for students 16 and older, so by definition, they didn’t succeed in the district’s so-called comprehensive high schools. The school is like a microcosm of San Francisco’s black student crisis. It has a disproportionately high number of black students — and just under a third of them are in special ed. That’s compared to a fifth of the school’s non-black students.
But special ed students at Downtown aren’t restricted to special classes or programs. This school’s been implementing “full inclusion” for nearly two decades — long before the district started its push. All students take part in project-based learning — one project each semester. Music, theater, wilderness. Academics are woven in. The students presenting their work today in a big multi-purpose room are in a project called GOAL for Get Out and Learn. They build boats, go backpacking, and do rope courses. This semester they’ve also dug deep into the science, politics, and literature of climate change.
At one of the presentation stations scattered across the room, Rochean Chatman is presenting on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, about a man and his son on a quest to survive a brutal dystopia. He explains how it ties in with the semester’s theme, “human action, nature’s reaction, because they’re in a human-caused Armageddon, and that could happen to us if we don’t shape up.”
Rochean’s almost 18. Before he got here in the fall of 2017, he was tanking hard in high school. “I didn’t really have that much support so I was skipping a lot more,” he explains. “I pretty much stopped going.”
Rochean is out sick a lot due to some chronic health issues, but he says his old school didn’t understand that and viewed him instead as a “slacker.”
For years, he had been in special ed for vision and handwriting disorders that can interfere with learning. Rochean got some intensive therapy and other individualized help that he says he “loved,” but it didn’t last. When he hit 8th grade, he and his grandmother say, the district told them he no longer qualified for special ed. They placed him on what’s known as a 504 plan instead. That’s like special ed lite for students with disabilities. It can be a good thing. There’s no special ed label and students can have 504 plans in college.
But Rochean says he wasn’t getting the support he needed. So while he failed out of high school, he and his grandmother waited for a new Individualized Education Program spelling out his needs and services.
“The whole semester I was there I didn’t have my IEP meeting,” he says.
Downtown High turned out to be a strong fit though. Rochean says he wanted the adults at school to see him, to understand him, and to help him. And Downtown High’s leaders say the school’s whole philosophy is about that. Assistant Principal Todd Williams used to work as a district special education administrator. He’s also African American. He says he knows that plenty of black students don’t get the services they need, like Rochean, and others wind up in special ed for the wrong reasons.
“Let's face it, the students are subject to the larger society,” he says. “The larger society is racist. The city is extremely racist. So the [kids] are going to experience this same sort of thing. It’s this misperception of who they are.”
Williams says he believes that misperception is not malicious, it’s “unconscious.” As a result, he and his team say, they have black students at Downtown High with IEPs who no longer need them, who maybe shouldn’t have ever had them. But there’s also mis-identification — students whose behavioral outbursts masked unidentified learning problems, and under-identification — often of quieter kids. Williams says his school is not afraid to refer them to special ed, despite what several school administrators told me was pressure from the district to keep numbers down, to reduce disproportionality.
As for Rochean? He says he started getting the help he needed even without an IEP.
“Once I got here, like, I instantly had support,” he says. “Just being in GOAL has helped me like a lot and I’m gonna graduate on time now.”
If he hadn’t landed at Downtown, Rochean says he’s pretty sure he would have dropped out of high school. Today, he’s riffing on Cormac McCarthy. What Downtown High is doing for him, and the district is working to replicate, means kids like Rochean are much less likely to end up like Darryl Lester — Larry P., the man.
Lester started school before federal law even guaranteed special ed students the right to a “free and appropriate public education” in what the law calls the “least restrictive environment.” He didn’t stand much of a chance. But in some ways, he beat the odds. He’s been clean and sober for 18 years now, he tells me, happily married for 14. He says he’s worked hard to shake the legacy of shame.
“I'm not bashful like I used to be to where I kept everything hidden,” Lester says. “I'm broke, I'm poor, but I'm making it.”
All that he lost by not getting an education, though, it still causes him pain. Sometimes he says, his wife finds him sitting on the living room sofa alone at night, crying.
“And they say grown men don't cry. That's a lie. Men cry. Especially if they ain't got what they want,” he says. “It hurts on the inside. But you have to swallow your pride and look over it and just find some strength somewhere and say, hey, come on, you can do this. I’m better than this. And that gets me through the day.”
This story in the series, Learning While Black: The Fight for Equity in San Francisco Schools, was reported with the support of the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being, a program of the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism.