Special-ed placements: we get it from both sides
As they say: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The Trump administration is looking to delay an Obama-era rule meant to counter racial disparities in special education. In 2016, the Obama administration found that students of color were more likely to be identified as having an educational disability and placed in Special Education classes than their white counterparts and issued a rule—to take effect in July 2018—that required states to intervene if there were strong racial disparities in their districts. John King, Acting U.S. Secretary of Education under Obama, emphasized that the intent was not to reduce the number of children who are identified as having a disability but to assure that the right children would be getting the right services and make sure all students’ needs were met. (Note 1)
The matter of Special-education placements has been, and continues to be, problematic for our community—on both ends of the spectrum: over- and under-representation in Special ed. A full discussion of this complex issue is beyond the scope of a single blog article. So here I’ll focus on my experiences with this issue.
The infamous 1-C “Americanization” campaign…
Back in the day, the Special-ed classes were bloated with Mexican Americans who were inappropriately labeled as “Educable Mentally Retarded (EMR).” In the early 1900s, Americans of Mexican descent were considered “foreigners.” In 1921 Superintendent C.E. Rose noted that over 50 percent of the children enrolled in Tucson schools were “of foreign blood, Mexican and Indian.” “Special” classes, known as 1-C, were set up for these “foreigners.”
In the 1950s, when I was in elementary school, Mexican American children (including my good self) were automatically placed in 1-C before they could enter the “normal” first grade. Academic subjects were not taught in 1-C. Under the euphemistic guise of “Americanization,” 1-C’s intent was to de-Mexicanize us, to strip us of our native language and home culture. Our names were arbitrarily Anglicized, and we were punished (sometimes beaten) for speaking Spanish on the school grounds. Because we did not start 1st Grade until we were seven years old, 1-C automatically set us back one year behind our peers. (Note 2)
Teachers decided who was “Americanized” enough to go on to 1st Grade. Those who didn’t “pass” 1-C were often labeled EMR (Educable Mentally Retarded) and placed in Special Education classes. There was no formal intellectual assessment involved in this decision. The criteria were totally subjective—for example, if a student still had a trace of a Spanish accent. Thus, the Special-ed classes were rife with Mexican Americans who did not belong there.
Students, parents, and the community take the initiative…
In the late 1960s, I was a community organizer for the Centro Chicano (aka “Chicano House”). Parents and high-school students came to the Centro with many educational concerns. One of these focused on Mexican American students who had no IQ or other documented educational “deficits” being labeled “EMR” and placed in Special Education classes. Upon our advice and with our support, the parents and students raised this and other issues with school administrators in meetings and via a petition drive, but they were ignored.
Frustrated, the students staged a walkout in the spring of 1969 and launched a sustained protest of the school district. Students, parents, Centro Chicano members, and community supporters attended school board meetings, addressed the school board, and picketed the district offices regularly. We convinced the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (DHEW), to investigate the situation. DHEW corroborated all the issues raised by the students and their parents. This activism brought about substantive changes in how students were placed in Special-ed classes (this issue was also part of the dynamics of a desegregation lawsuit filed in 1974 by Mexican American parents).
The same dynamics were occurring in the Phoenix area. Socorro Hernández Bernasconi, a school counselor trained in bilingual psychometry, or intelligence testing and interpretation, in Guadalupe, a Yaqui-Mexican American community outside of Phoenix, was concerned that Yaqui/Mexican American children who were not proficient in English were being placed in classes for the mentally retarded because they were tested in English rather than their home language.
In 1971, Bernasconi raised the matter with the school principal and with the school’s Special-ed unit. Frustrated by the lack of action on the part of the school, she advised parents of affected children to obtain legal representation. The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, (DHEW) investigated the situation and substantiated the issue raised by Bernasconi (and other issues raised by the community). The “Guadalupe Organization” filed a lawsuit regarding this issue, and in 1972, the State of Arizona agreed that a proper evaluation of a child’s intelligence and verbal skills required testing in the child’s primary language.
From EMR to Learning Disabled…
The activism described above (and other actions in other states and localities) for all intents and purposes stopped the practice of labeling Mexican American children as “retarded” for racial and pecuniary reasons (school districts get a larger per-pupil allotment from the state for special-ed students).
But the phenomenon is rearing its head again in the context of “learning disabled.” Students who are not proficient in English are being labeled “learning disabled” and channeled into Special-ed classes. This occurs even when they are assessed in their native language in instances where: the assessor does not have the fluency or background to accurately interpret the assessment results; the younger students may not be literate in their native language and thus perform poorly on the assessments; the testing materials may not be adequate. The result is that the assessment results may appear that a child has a learning disability when in fact the child is still in the process of mastering his/her native language or acquiring a second language. (Note 3)
But on the other side of the coin…
All too often, students with genuine learning disabilities who could benefit from Special-ed services go undetected and undiagnosed. For example, a student with an LD condition may be unable to process—or have a very hard time processing—oral or written information. On a 10-question test, this student may only be able to answer two questions in the time allotted; even if the two answers are correct, the student’s test score will only be 20%. As a result, these undetected LD students, regardless of their intelligence or innate abilities, will be unable to benefit meaningfully from classroom instruction. They are often perceived by teachers as slow or lazy and even as discipline problems. This phenomenon affects but is not specific to Mexican Americans.
These dynamics have serious real-life consequences. Because school is in effect tortuous, many of these students drop out. They then have problems with such routine things as filling out job applications, taking driver-license tests, etc. One study describes probationers who were failing to fulfill their probation requirements. It turned out that many of them had undiagnosed LD conditions and therefore were unable to decipher sentencing paperwork that detailed what the court was ordering the probationer to do. (Note 4)
Admirably, many of these undiagnosed LD students not only make it through high school, they obtain admission to college. I worked with many of them at the University of Arizona. My Master’s degree is in Special Education (with a specialty of identifying and remediating learning disabilities). I was an Assistant Dean of Students and taught Chicano Studies; thus, I was in constant contact with students. Because of my training, I was able to detect potential LD conditions in students I counseled, mentored, or taught. Indeed, after I conducted a comprehensive assessment of them, many of these students had an LD condition that had gone undetected and undiagnosed from elementary to high school. They described how tortuous school was for them and the coping, compensatory strategies they developed in order to survive their schooling. Once I diagnosed them, outlined a treatment plan, and referred them to the university’s center for LD students (fortunately, the U of A was one of a handful of schools in the country with such a center), these students flourished and completed their studies successfully.
Thus, when it comes to Special-ed placement, we get it from both sides. Mexican American/Chicano students are often overrepresented in Special Education classes and just as often are underrepresented in Special Education classes due to faulty (or in many cases, no) diagnoses. c/s
Copyright 2018 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: Salomonrb@msn.com Special Thanks to Dr. Christine Marín, Professor Emerita and founder of the Chicana/o Research Collection, Arizona State University and to Dr. Todd Fletcher, Associate Professor, College of Education, University of Arizona for their assistance. Photo of picketers courtesy of Salomon Baldenegro, photo of Socorro Hernandez Bernasconi courtesy of Christine Marin. Photo of student copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. All other photos in the public domain.
Shaun Heasley, “Obama Administration Aims To Curb Disparities In Special Ed.,” DisabilityScoop: The Premier Source for Developmental Disability News, February 29, 2016.
Two good treatments of “Americanization” are: Thomas Sheridan, “Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson 1854-1941,” The University of Arizona Press: 1986; and Herman Robert Lucero, “Plessy to Brown: Education of Mexican Americans in Arizona public schools during the era of segregation,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 2004.
See, for example, Nicole Fernandez, Albert Inserra, “Disproportionate Classification of ESL Students in U.S. Special Education,” TESL-EJ Electronic Journal for English as a Second language, Volume 17, Number 2, August 2013.
Shannon Duffy, “Undiagnosed Learning Disabilities Hinder Probationers’ Success,” Grady Newsource, September 7, 2017.