Latino Students Misdiagnosed with Learning Disabilities Raises Questions about Discrimination, Bias


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Latino children in Santa Barbara schools are disproportionately represented in special education classes, and often incorrectly, as per a new report from the California Department of Education.

“Children from Latinx families are 3.43 times more likely to be identified as having learning disabilities than their white peers in the Santa Barbara Unified School District,” according to the Santa Barbara Independent.

The state flagged the district for the “significant disproportionality.”

This issue highlights the potential bias against and lack of resources for Latino students who are struggling in school, especially those from Spanish-speaking or immigrant households.

It also emphasizes the need for school officials to ensure students are treated with equity, no matter their background.

What Happened to Latino Students in Santa Barbara?

The California Department of Education found that for the last three years, Latino students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District have been 3.4 times more likely to be identified with learning disabilities than students from other groups.

The report suggested that Latino students may be placed in special education classes accidentally.

This may be due to teachers and administrators’ failure to determine if a student has a learning disability or is falling behind because of issues with English language learning.

“We are going to stop pretending that kids who don’t speak the language they’re taught to read in learn automatically and that they should have comprehension, when we know that their level of proficiency in English is not at the level of someone whose first language is English,” said Hilda Maldonado, superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District, according to the Santa Barbara Independent.

The district now has a comprehensive plan to get these Latino students back on track, involving the use of 15% of their budget for federal special education funding.

The plan begins by identifying the root causes behind the disparities before finding ways to address it.

“The plan identifies six root causes for why Latinx students continually get misplaced into special education,” according to the Santa Barbara Independent.

“Some of them include that the district does not have clear and consistent systems to help intervene when multilingual students are struggling; there are conscious and unconscious biases toward linguistically diverse students that negatively impact expectations; and there is a lack of parental understanding of rights and legal support around special education.”

From there, they will target 2nd and 3rd graders at several elementary schools in the district by distinguishing between students who are English language learners and those who actually have learning disabilities.

“The aim is to create a support system for struggling multilingual students that is separate from support systems for native English-speaking students,” according to the Santa Barbara Independent.

The plan will also “continue and expand professional learning related to conscious or unconscious racial and linguistic bias for all SB Unified staff.”

Through these actions, the district hopes to lower the risk ratio for Latino students being identified with learning disabilities from 3.43 to below 3.0 by September 2022, with an ultimate goal of 1.0.

Latinos Face Discrimination in School

Santa Barbara schools may have misdiagnosed many Latino students with learning disabilities.

Unfortunately, this story is not uncommon.

“Black and Latino students are misdiagnosed or disproportionately enrolled in special education in many districts, not receiving the services they need or missing out on learning with their peers,” said Elizabeth Kozelski, a professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, according to EdSource. “At its heart, special education needs to be fair. Schools need to have robust services that benefit all students.”

Latino children often face discrimination in the classroom, which can have severe consequences on their health and wellbeing.

“Children of color are often treated differently by school personnel; they are more likely to be harshly punished for minor infractions, and teachers may underestimate their abilities,” according to a Salud America! research review. “The high school dropout rate among Latino students is 17.6%; higher than Black (9.3%) and White students (5.2%). Lower educational attainment among Black and Latino students is linked to an increased risk of institutionalization, poorer physical and mental health, and reduced lifetime earning/economic potential.”

The demographic makeup of a school can affect how equitably students are treated. A study in Florida found that results varied on Black and Latino students’ representation in special education classrooms depending on how diverse schools were.

“Black and Hispanic students were more likely to be identified with disabilities when they attended schools that had a mostly white population. But Black and Hispanic students were substantially underidentified with disabilities when they attended schools where the student body was mostly black or Hispanic,” said Christina Samuels, according to Education Week.

Research shows that social differences can lead to inequity for students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that social factors led to being diagnosed with learning disabilities.

“The fact that identification with a learning disability is correlated with socio-demographic characteristics suggests that identification of learning problems may reflect social differences rather than learning differences, and the solution to some ‘biological’ issues may lie in addressing social problems, such as socioeconomic inequality or the way that socioeconomic inequality is reproduced in schools,” according to researchers Dara Shifrer, Chandra Muller, and Rebecca Callahan.

How Can We Fight Bias and Discrimination in the Classroom?

Children deserve to be treated fairly in the classroom.

Some students need more help than others.

But when English language learners are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities, this takes away resources from students who do need special education.

We must give educators the resources they need to assess whether or not students need special education.

Santa Barbara Unified School District is on the right track with their plan to help Latino students by increasing the support systems and educating instructors on bias and discrimination.

We can help our children and schools by examining our own biases.

To start, take a quick test to see if you have any implicit biases.

Seek training or help put an end to microaggressions.

You can also help by declaring racism a public health crisis in your city.

Systemic racism and discrimination make it harder for Latino and Black people to get education, healthcare, housing, transportation, employment, healthy food, and fair policing, all of which are worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can download and use the Salud America! “Get Your City to Declare Racism a Public Health Crisis Action Pack” to fight racism in your community.

“We have to do better, and we know it,” said Laura Capps, president of the SAUSD board.

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