No more waiting

More than two years after an independent audit raised alarm bells about special-ed classes, youth advocacy groups don’t see change coming without legal action

Darryl White Sr. leads the Black Parallel School Board, one of the groups suing SCUSD.

Darryl White Sr. leads the Black Parallel School Board, one of the groups suing SCUSD.

Photo by kris hooks

“How much data do you need to take action?” the frustrated parent of an autistic student asked in January, after the Sacramento City Unified School District had spent 19 months mulling over a damning independent report on its handling of students with disabilities, while failing to act on most of its recommendations.

Eight months later, it’s not just parents exasperated by the lack of action: A coalition of nonprofits and youth advocacy groups just filed a federal lawsuit against the district, one that seeks to force fundamental change in its special education program.

Some parents had long suspected the district has potentially illegal polices for educating disabled students, though their concerns became impossible to ignore after May 2017. That’s when the independent audit by Council of the Great City Schools determined disabled students at SCUSD had abnormally low graduation rates, weren’t getting adequate mental health services and were experiencing alarmingly high suspension rates. The audit singled out the district’s handling of African-American students, many of whom suffered from emotional disturbances and had nearly twice the suspension rate as non-disabled students. The analysis was soon bolstered by another independent study, this one by San Diego State University. It found that black male students with disabilities in the district were the group with the highest suspension rates.

A year after the audit’s release, all 11 members of the district’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education resigned in protest, specifically because SCUSD officials had failed to implement recommendations from both them and the audit.

On Sept. 6, Disability Rights California, Equal Justice Society, Western Center on Law & Poverty, the National Center for Youth Law and the Black Parallel School Board jointly filed suit against the district and school board in federal district court.

“Sacramento City Unified School District has created and perpetuates an unlawful school system that results in modern-day segregation and mistreatment of students with disabilities, particularly Black students with disabilities,” attorneys wrote in their 54-page complaint. “Despite being on notice of its discriminatory conduct for years, the District has not taken steps to effectively eradicate the problems. … As a result, discrimination persists and students languish in a hostile, stigmatizing and demoralizing school environment.

“Sacramento City Unified School District places nearly half of its students with disabilities in segregated placements,” the suit alleges.

The suit is filed on behalf of three African-American students—a fourth grader diagnosed with autism and dyslexia, a fifth grader diagnosed with autism and anxiety disorder and a high school junior assessed with mental health conditions. While the suit contends each student was not given the education to stay in classrooms with non-disabled peers, it’s also filed as a class action on behalf of hundreds of other potentially affected students.

The lawsuit seeks a court injunction to compel the district to adopt an inclusion plan originally recommended by Council of the Great City Schools.

SCUSD chief communications officer Alex Barrios declined to comment on the pending litigation, but said in a written statement that the district understands the level of community concern.

“We want to be clear that the District will not tolerate any form of discrimination in our schools and is taking these allegations very seriously,” Barrios wrote. “Although these matters are complex, we will continue to look deeply at how to meet the academic and social and emotional needs of all students, including students with disabilities, who are among our most vulnerable.”

One group driving the legal action is the Black Parallel School Board, a local organization that grew out of the Sacramento Area Black Caucus. Board chairman Darryl White Sr. says his organization was aware of problems long before the independent audit, but hadn’t seen the full scope because it often referred parents to outside organizations that specialized in disability issues.

“We didn’t really have the expertise in special education we thought we needed to take it on,” White said. After news broke of the audit, his board began meeting with disabled students and their families.

“The number of parents that showed up blew us away,” White said. “And the stories we heard were so emotional. After listening to that, we knew we had to get directly involved.”

Mona Tawatao of the Equal Justice Society, one of the lead attorneys in the lawsuit, pointed out that, by some metrics, the disproportionate suspension of black students with disabilities has actually gotten worse since the independent audit.

“By segregating, we don’t just mean separating these students out into special classes and programs—though that has been happening—but we also mean the disparity in disciplining them,” Tawatao told SN&R. “When you suspend rather than find other ways to address behavior, the student begins to see him or herself as bad or problematic, and that gets internalized. In some cases, this leads to self-harm.”

Michael Harris, senior director of legal advocacy and juvenile justice for National Center for Youth Law, said that his organization joined the lawsuit because Sacramento City Unified has become a glaring outlier within the most populous state in the union.

“They have the highest suspension rates for African-American students of any district in California, period,” Harris said, citing the San Diego State study. “And that’s even above L.A. Unified. … We want a culture change. We hope to achieve a total transformation of how this district does business.”