In 1985, a Cambodian refugee enrolled in the School District of Philadelphia was mistakenly placed in a special education classroom, based on the results of a test indicating that he was mentally handicapped. But the test had been conducted in English, which was not the refugee student’s native language.
This student, whose initials were Y.S., was eventually one of several Asian student plaintiffs in a landmark 1986 class-action suit, Y.S. et al. v. School District of Philadelphia.
The misdiagnosis of Y.S. has had enormous impact on the District’s attention to services for English language learners (ELLs). The suit is still alive, and many issues it raised about special education services for students who are also ELLs have yet to be resolved.
The issues are bigger than Philadelphia. In a 2004 U.S. Department of Education study, staff from districts around the U.S. expressed “concerns about the challenge faced in attempting to distinguish between second language acquisition versus a disability as the source of a student’s academic difficulties.”
This means that students are often denied appropriate placement.
While some students like Y.S. are wrongly diagnosed as learning disabled, the federal study uncovered a larger trend: ELL students are underrepresented in special education programs.
The study found that while 13.5 percent of U.S. students overall receive special education services, only 9.2 percent of ELL students receive these services.
The authors speculated that discrepancy reflects a failure of schools to adequately test students identified as ELLs.
Becky Español, who advocates for families through the Parents Involved Network, said that she has seen this to be true. One of her cases involves a 15-year old girl who Español says has an IQ of 60. But administrators, she said, maintain that the girl’s problems stem from living in a non-English-speaking home and have written her off rather than classify her properly and provide the services she needs.
“The school knows better,” Español said. “Frustration, anger, anxiety, dropouts, early pregnancies, [contact with the] juvenile justice [system]…these are the repercussions of not being able to address the needs of a child on time.”
The process of identifying ELL students with learning disabilities requires staff training as well as expert involvement. Over the years, advocates and administrators have criticized the District for having too few bilingual psychologists and speech therapists.
Parents’ lack of English complicates the situation. Navigating the process of evaluating a child and developing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is daunting for any parent, but even more so for parents who need translation assistance.
According to federal law, schools are required to communicate with parents in their primary language. In some cases, however, the required home language accommodations are not provided.
One local mother, a Venezuelan woman who asked that her name not be used, has been working for three years to get appropriate services for her autistic son, who was not making progress at his elementary school.
“Todo inglés,” she said of the documents that the school sent home – all in English, although the paperwork does exist in Spanish.
At meetings with special education staff and school administrators, there were never interpreters available. She only recently learned that a translator was available at the school – but only one day a week.
In her opinion, which she expressed through a translator, “It’s very important to have interpreters available all the time because there can always be an emergency, especially with special ed kids.”