search button
newscenter logo
Saturday, July 2, 2022

Follow SDSU Follow SDSU on Twitter Follow SDSU on Facebook SDSU RSS Feed

Paul Luelmo Paul Luelmo

Study Tackles Inequity in Special Education Placement

A state grant is supporting research at the College of Education to help school districts recognize and lessen differential treatment.
By Michael Klitzing

“The alternative should be interventions and individualized instruction. But those resources do not exist in many school districts.”

San Diego State University’s Paul Luelmo is leading a new statewide effort to address disproportionate rates of placement in special education along racial and ethnic lines.

More than 130 districts in California — about 10% — were shown to have racial inequalities in special education placements, a phenomenon termed “disproportionality.” The impacts are profound. For instance, in comparison with the overall student population in some of these districts, data show Latinx students are three times more likely to be placed in special education for learning disabilities, and Black students are three times more likely to be identified for emotional disturbance.

Luelmo, an assistant professor in SDSU’s Department of Special Education, is teaming with the Napa County Office of Education to study the root causes of disproportionality and develop a protocol to help districts address the problem. The work was recently supported by a $27,000 grant from the California Department of Education.  

“Special education disproportionality is like the canary in the coal mine,” said Luelmo. “It's the sign of something that's happening in general education. What we find is that the systems of support for students who might need help are just not there. Or there might be differential treatment among some students.”

Luelmo pointed to one example where a district referred students who had recently arrived in the U.S. to special education if they did not speak English after three months.

By treating special education admission as a catch-all intervention, Luelmo said, districts risk stigmatizing students while limiting their potential by placing them in classes that focus on functional skills instead of academic skills.

“The alternative should be interventions and individualized instruction,” Luelmo said. “But those resources do not exist in many school districts, so special ed is seen as the next best thing. That's not the right way to do it.”

Luelmo’s task is to create a California-centered protocol that will empower school districts facing disproportionalities to assess their situations, identify root causes and develop solutions. Over the next year, he and his team will create a series of questions and run focus groups of parents and teachers to evaluate and refine those questions.

Luelmo has been involved in efforts to curb statewide disproportionalities for more than five years. It’s work that stems back to his own upbringing as a transborder student. Born in Los Angeles, he grew up in Tijuana and commuted across the border every day to attend high school in San Diego.

“Since I was little, I’ve been very aware of socioeconomic differences and inequities,” Luelmo said. “When I became a teacher, I was working at a school in Los Angeles with mostly Latino, Spanish-speaking families and I saw some of the differential treatment. It made me passionate about supporting and working with immigrant families.”