Beth Winegarner's news articles

San Francisco Bay Area community news

Smartphone thefts give wake-up call

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By Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
April 6, 2012

All over town, folks are tuning out the world and tuning in to their smartphones — playing games, checking email, sending text messages. They’re also making themselves sitting ducks for robbery.

San Francisco thieves stole 180 cellphones in 30 days this year, according to police Chief Greg Suhr. Plenty of those were snatched right out of people’s hands. In the Tenderloin alone, 38 percent of robberies in January and February — where items were stolen directly from a person — were cellphones, said police Sgt. Michael Andraychak.

Most smartphone robberies are crimes of opportunity, where suspects approach suddenly and either snatch the phone or use force and fear to take it, Andraychak said. In late January alone, suspects pulled off four such robberies in Glen Park, according to police reports.

One woman was holding her phone outside a grocery store when a suspect hit her on the back of the head and ran off with the phone. In another case, an 11-year-old boy was using his phone in the Glen Park Branch Library before a suspect followed him into the bathroom and took it from him.

Despite the risk of robbery, Chester Hartsough said he uses his smartphone frequently when he’s out to send text messages or check bus schedules. “I make sure I’m aware of who’s around me,” he said while using his phone to arrange a coffee date with his wife.

“It wouldn’t bother me to have my phone stolen,” Hartsough said. “It would suck, but I wouldn’t be scared or traumatized by it.”

But many victims of cellphone robberies definitely feel traumatized.

Art gallery employee Megan McConnell was waiting for a downtown bus after an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when a teenager grabbed her iPhone and ran. She chased him, but wasn’t able to keep up.

“I was angry and totally astonished,” McConnell said. “I got home and felt very violated. When I woke up to an email from my bank saying someone had tried to log in to my account, I felt even more violated.”

Smartphone use is unquestionably on the rise. One-third of adults own a smartphone, according to a 2011 Pew Internet & American Life survey. With that ownership comes increased use, which becomes habit-forming. A 2011 study from the Personal and Ubiquitous Computing journal found that smartphone owners briefly check their phones many times a day, particularly when they’re bored or waiting for something, like a bus.

“I think it’s individual addiction, but also a socially constructed problem,” said Leslie Perlow, author of “Sleeping With Your Smartphone,” due out in May. “When the phone beeps, you want to see what it is. There’s also a sense of feeling important, of being needed.”

Perlow asked 1,600 managers and professionals how they would feel if they lost their phones, and 44 percent said they would experience a “great deal” of anxiety.

To keep people from losing their phones, police recommend that people pay more attention to their surroundings, not use smartphones and other electronics as they walk or use transit, and not use the tell-tale white earphones that come with Apple devices, Andraychak said.

Not everyone heeds that advice. Christina Yu, sitting at a bus stop while wearing white earphones and texting on her phone, didn’t notice a reporter standing inches away from her.

“Yes, smartphone thefts do worry me,” Yu said. “I always make sure to keep my phone in a zippered part of my purse.” But she doesn’t take any precautions when using the phone publicly. “No, I just have it out,” she shrugged.

Tracking software can foil criminals

When a teen stun-gunned a woman in Japantown and stole her belongings, including her smartphone, the device’s GPS technology led police right to the suspect.

San Francisco police frequently attempt to track down stolen phones and other electronics. However, a number of things have to happen before that works — including installing the right software and obtaining cooperation from cellphone makers and service providers.

Liana Lareau had her iPhone snatched from her hands while she was waiting in line at El Farolito on Mission Street. But police couldn’t get it back for her.

“Sadly, I hadn’t activated the ‘Find my iPhone’ feature,” she said. “The police took the serial number, but I didn’t try very hard to follow up on it.”

Phone-tracking software is optional and must be installed by the user before police can take advantage of it in robbery situations. Such programs also let people remotely lock or erase lost or stolen devices, which can keep sensitive data out of robbers’ hands if tracking doesn’t work, according to Jen Martin, an Apple spokeswoman.

“Some phones can be located using GPS technology,” said Dan Newman, a spokesman for AT&T, which offers a secure website where a subscriber can trace a phone’s location on a map.

In addition, if the thief — or the company — turns off the phone, its tracking signals will go silent, foiling police efforts.

“Installing tracking software can be a useful way of following a stolen phone or laptop after the fact,” said police Sgt. Michael Andraychak. “However, our crime-prevention strategy has been one of education, and preventing thefts and robberies to begin with.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

April 6, 2012 at 9:43 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

School Lunches: Study Recommends a Joint S.F.-Oakland Kitchen

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by Beth Winegarner
March 7, 2012

San Francisco public school students haven’t eaten fresh-cooked cafeteria food since the Reagan era. In fact, many schools no longer have kitchens; some have no more than a closet-sized room where prepackaged meals are reheated. Sure, there are salad bars in about a quarter of schools, and health-savvy options like brown rice and whole-wheat pasta in others, but most meals served by the San Francisco Unified School District — supplied by Preferred Meal Systems — consist of entrees like waffles, chicken nuggets, pizza, and hamburgers.

Enter the San Francisco Food Bank. Last year, with the SFUSD’s blessing, the food bank commissioned a $180,000 study of the district’s student-nutrition program — a study mostly paid for by ConAgra and the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation. The long-winded, labyrinthine results were delivered privately in December but have not yet been made public.

According to a memo obtained by SF Weekly and authored by Ed Wilkins, SFUSD’s food-service director, the study makes a number of run-of-the-mill suggestions for reducing financial losses, spiffing up drab cafeterias, and serving breakfast in more elementary school classrooms. But it also contains a whopper: SFUSD and Oakland Unified School District should operate a central kitchen where meals for both districts could be cooked from scratch. Wilkins wrote that the Food Bank believes the joint commissary “may provide the best possible combination of flexibility, cultural sensitivity, coverage, and efficiency.”

Many parents support a revival of from-scratch cooking, and some district leaders have long backed the idea of a central kitchen, or something like it. Board of Education member Jill Wynns tells SF Weekly that it might make a good item for future bond funding. But in his memo, Wilkins contests the recommendations — both for a joint kitchen with OUSD, and renovating the district’s own kitchens. He added that the Oakland plan would need “analysis of logistics and political feasibility.” Wynns calls it “a crazy idea” and criticizes the study’s failure to fully analyze the potential costs. And Wilkins himself notes that SFUSD is already exploring the central-kitchen idea at an unnamed school site — and seeking funding to make it happen.

Funding is key, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture only reimburses California schools $2.94 per lunch for the lowest-income kids. SFUSD already loses $3 million a year from its $18.3 million food programs, and paying cooks San Francisco wages could nix the whole thing, according to Wynns. But there’s a payoff: School meals offer “the biggest opportunity to provide critical daily nutrition to hungry and food-insecure children in San Francisco,” says Teri Ollie, associate director of policy and advocacy for the food bank.

If there’s one thing SFUSD and the food bank agree on, it’s the value of being tight-lipped. SFUSD avoided letting us speak directly with Wilkins, and both agencies refused to tell us when the study will go before the school board — and whether it will need to go before Oakland’s, too.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

March 7, 2012 at 9:41 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Fare Hack: Exploiting a Clipper Card Flaw Is Easy

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by Beth Winegarner
Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Not that we think you would, but with a visit to Radio Shack you could hack into that Clipper card in your wallet, allowing you to load it with free rides or create and sell copies for profit — and funnel money away from the Bay Area’s crash-strapped public-transit agencies.

What it would take: an oscilloscope, an antenna, a transponder, a bit of know-how, and about seven hours.

That’s according to David Oswald, a Ph.D. student in IT security at the Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany, who broke the encryption in Clipper and similar transit cards last year. Clipper cards contain a chip that uses radio signals to talk to fare gates and the transponders on buses, making it easy to “eavesdrop” on the conversation.”It’s comparable to a professional thief who can open a safe by listening to the mechanical clicks of the lock. In our case, we are listening to electromagnetic fields,” says Oswald.

From there, a hacker can narrow down which key will break the encryption and gain access to the information on the chip. Lest you think it takes an IT degree to read the data, the Farebot app for Android phones lets you peek at the travel history and balance on your own card — or anyone else’s nearby.

The vulnerability poses “a severe threat to the security of real-world systems” that use the chip, Oswald wrote in a paper published in October.

Cubic Transportation Systems, the company that supplies Clipper cards, downplays the finding. “Cubic continually monitors card activity to determine if unauthorized modifications have been made,” says Derick Benoit, vice president of customer services.

However, Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin says card-cloning is possible. That’s a problem, since Andres Townes, a former employee of Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and later Cubic, was indicted for selling millions of dollars’ worth of cloned magnetic-stripe transit cards on Craigslist. Townes kicked off his alleged racket in 2007, before Cubic took over the MBTA’s transit-card system, but wasn’t arrested until 2011 — well after Cubic got involved.

The MTC has asked Cubic to finesse the Clipper system in light of Oswald’s findings, and Cubic is “considering this request,” Goodwin said. Cubic also plans to use a new, less-vulnerable chip in Clipper cards this year, but that still leaves over 1 million weaker cards in circulation.

“No smart card is, or will ever be, absolutely 100 percent hack-proof,” Goodwin said. “The goal is to stay at least one step ahead of the people that would look to take advantage of discovered vulnerabilities.”

That’s easier than staying out of cities with Radio Shacks.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

February 1, 2012 at 9:42 PM

Posted in San Francisco, Transit

More San Francisco women choosing home birth despite the higher cost

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by Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
January 29, 2012

Rita Kearns lies back as her midwife measures her gravid belly. Maria Iorillo presses a fetoscope to Kearns’ side and finds the baby’s heartbeat. “It’s perfect,” she says, passing Kearns the earpieces.

Kearns, 43, is 41 weeks pregnant — one week past her due date. By now, many obstetricians would suggest inducing labor. Iorillo is content to wait. And, when the contractions begin, Kearns will give birth at home, as she’s done twice before.

She is one of a growing number of area women choosing to give birth at home. Local home births have doubled since 2005, even as overall births declined nearly 7 percent from 2007, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Many families choose home birth even though insurance companies frequently leave them holding the bag for some or all of the costs.

Families choose home birth for a variety of reasons, said midwife Michelle Welborn. Some fear hospitals and medical intervention. Others want a natural birth, or control of the birthing environment, Welborn said.

At hospitals, women often face doctors eager to accelerate labor, said Redwood City doula Sandra Caldwell. That can lead to complications, even Caesarean sections.

Others turn away from hospitals because they don’t appreciate rushed prenatal visits attended by a revolving-door cast of nurses and doctors. Gia Schultz, 30, was 22 and 30 weeks pregnant when she hired a midwife to deliver her son at home.

“Instantly knew I wanted her at my birth,” Schultz said. “She had an actual interest in getting to know us … our wants, needs and unique characteristics. In the hospital you didn’t have enough time for that.”

San Francisco’s midwives and home-birth supporters have worked hard to make The City a home-birth mecca.

They network through the Bay Area Homebirth Collective, offer birth classes and potlucks, and have fought to legalize home birth and encourage hospitals to embrace it.

When Iorillo came to San Francisco in 1985, it was illegal for her to deliver babies at home, despite her license from a renowned midwifery school. She served on the California Board of Midwives for 10 years, during which she saw two bills legalizing non-nurse midwives fail before the third passed in 1994.

Local midwives worked with UC San Francisco’s birth center to overcome the hostility many women faced when they told their obstetricians they were planning a home birth — hostility that often returned if they wound up transferring to a hospital during labor.

“We had doctors who think home birth isn’t safe, and I think the majority of doctors feel that way,” said Judith Bishop, a former home-birth midwife who now delivers babies at UCSF. “We wanted to make sure there isn’t a divisive feeling between hospital and home birth, that people don’t feel they’re treated badly for coming in, or that we treat them with less respect.”

When that happens, she added, women and midwives become reluctant to transfer, risking the health of both mother and child.

Now, the only San Francisco hospital where doctors may decline to accept home-birth transfers is the California Pacific Medical Center.

Spokesman Kevin McCormack said CPMC isn’t opposed to home births, but its obstetricians, who are independent practitioners, can choose not to back up patients planning home births. CPMC delivers nearly half the babies born here each year, and has a 29 percent C-section rate, just slightly lower than the state average of 32.8 percent.

California hospitals charge upward of $15,000 for an uncomplicated vaginal birth, and often $30,000 or more for a C-section. While health-insurance providers cover most or all of those costs, they routinely reimburse 50 percent or less for home birth, which costs just $4,000 to $6,000 — including all prenatal and postnatal care.

“It’s kind of amazing when you think about it,” Bishop said. “It would be so much cheaper for insurance companies not to pay the hospital bill, which is gigantic.”

Coverage for home birth varies depending on the insurance provider and the patient’s plan, noted Schultz, who now handles insurance billing for Rites of Passage Midwifery. Kaiser doesn’t cover anything. Others may pay anywhere from 20 to 50 percent — even 100 percent, if the stars align.

“The key is patience,” Schultz said. “Insurance companies always come back and say they won’t pay you; you have to go through the process of denial over and over.”

Susan Pisano, spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a collective of 1,300 insurers, said the coverage issues relate to patient safety. “The bottom line,” she said, “is the evidence has been pretty sparse on the safety of home births.”

But according to a 2005 British Medical Journal study of 5,000 American births, home birth has similarly low rates of infant and maternal mortality as low-risk hospital births. Other studies have echoed these findings.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is beginning to soften. In October, it met with midwives for the first Home Birth Summit in Virginia. “Instead of all the backstabbing and trying to squelch us out of existence, they had an open conversation about where we can find consensus,” Iorillo said.

Natural-birth centers forced to close doors

Home births are increasingly popular, but the sagging economy has hit natural-birth advocates hard, leaving pregnant parents with fewer choices.

St. Luke’s Hospital closed its “Homestyle” program — which offered in-house midwives and a more natural birthing model — in 2007 to help keep the financially strapped hospital from closing. Earlier this year, Sage Femme, The City’s only independent birthing center, shuttered its Capp Street facility after reimbursements from Medi-Cal and other insurance providers shrank.

Natural Resources, the 24-year-old shop that provides classes, birth-tub rentals and supplies for natural-birth families, narrowly escaped the same fate in November when it raised $48,000 through crowd-sourcing.

“It started with the economy,” said Natural Resources owner Cara Vidano. “Over time, our revenue has decreased.

Even with cutting costs, we haven’t been able to pay all our bills.” After failing to find a buyer for the struggling store, Vidano faced two choices: raise donations or close.

Sage Femme and its head midwife, Judy Tinkelenberg, delivered hundreds of babies in their 12 years in the Mission district. Tinkelenberg was the only midwife in San Francisco to accept Medi-Cal. The average client paid $3,820 to $4,500 for a birth at Sage Femme, including all prenatal and post-natal care. Until recently, Medi-Cal would cover almost $2,000 of that, but in recent years, their reimbursement dropped to less than $1,200 per birth.

“And, if the patient transfers to a hospital” — which 5 to 40 percent of home-birth moms do, depending on the midwife — “I don’t get paid at all,” Tinkelenberg said. “If I had cut Medi-Cal I don’t know if it would have been made up for with paying patients.”

For both businesses, the community — not the health care industry — is what may keep birth options alive.

Tinkelenberg is now attending home births and working with the Alameda-based Birth Options Foundation to raise money for a new birth center somewhere in the Bay Area.

For Natural Resources, the influx of donations “means we will be able to function again,” Vidano said. “If everything goes as planned, we will be in business for a while. This isn’t just a short-term solution.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 29, 2012 at 9:46 PM

Book captures Bay Area’s thrash heyday

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Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
Dec. 30, 2011

The Bay Area may be known for Silicon Valley’s innovations, but it was another breakthrough altogether that gave it a permanent spot on the international heavy-metal map: thrash.

The early years of such seminal local bands as Metallica, Exodus, Testament, Death Angel and Vio-lence — plus their Los Angeles brethren Megadeth and Slayer — are captured in the new photo book “Murder in the Front Row: Shots From the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter,” by Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew, out this week.

Oimoen and Lew’s snapshots reveal fresh-faced kids who worked hard onstage and played hard offstage. In one backyard shot, Metallica spits beer at Oimoen’s lens. In another, Exodus members balance light bulbs on their heads in bassist Gary Holt’s mom’s garage.

“One of the coolest, least known, and most unpublicized things about the Bay Area thrash metal scene back in the day has been the great brotherhood and camaraderie that was and is so prevalent,” Oimoen wrote in his introduction to the book. “There was no distinction between bands and fans like there is today.”

That camaraderie allowed Oimoen and Lew to get close to many bands and capture photos that couldn’t happen today — such as Metallica’s James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett lying side-by-side in bed with guitars, cigarettes and beer in their hands.

For many bands, the volume is a kind of yearbook of the early 1980s, said Death Angel singer Mark Osegueda. “I saw it at Kirk Hammett’s house — we sat and went through it for about an hour, and it brought back some memories of things we didn’t know were captured,” he said.

For the rest of the world, “Murder in the Front Row” is either a reminder of those times, or an introduction to the original thrash metal scene for a new generation of teens just discovering the genre. Serendipity led Lew and Oimoen to release the book now, just as Metallica and Slayer are celebrating their 30th anniversaries and toured with Anthrax and Testament this year.

“We’ve had these pictures for 30 years,” Lew said. “It’s better that we didn’t put the book out 10 or 15 years ago, because a lot of the younger metal bands are being influenced by the book the era covers.”

Outcasts latched onto thrash in the 1980s because it was the most aggressive music available, and fans today are looking for the same thing, according to Osegueda.

“I think it’s more viable now, ironically enough. Politically, the world’s in a state of utter chaos and turmoil, and that’s when this type of music seems to resonate,” he said. “This aggressive sound makes them feel like they’re getting something out of their system.”

Murder in the Front Row

By Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew
Publisher Bazillion Points
Pages 272
Price $34.95

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 30, 2011 at 8:36 PM

SFPD’s Ugly History with Pepper Spray

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by Beth Winegarner
Nov. 30, 2011

When San Francisco Police came calling in June of 1995, 37-year-old Aaron Williams probably didn’t think it would be his last day on Earth. But as the pet-store-burglary suspect emerged from his house, a dozen officers piled on him. Police pepper-sprayed him, restrained him, and placed him face-down in a police van. Within an hour, he was dead.

That same month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California issued a sobering report on pepper spray, which had been legalized for police use in October 1992. By May 31, 1995, California law-enforcement officers had used it nearly 16,000 times, roughly 24 times per day. Twenty-six people had died — not including Williams — giving pepper-spray victims a 1-in-600 chance at death.

By October 1995, the San Francisco Police Department had updated its use-of-force policy, which details when and how pepper should be used. However, it appears that SFPD didn’t follow that policy six months later when officers picked up an incoherent Mark Garcia, then pepper-sprayed and hog-tied him. He died the next day, after suffering two massive heart attacks.

Since then, no one has died in SFPD custody following the use of pepper spray, according to Officer Albie Esparza. But with a wave of police pepper-spray attacks on Occupy Wall Street protests in Davis and across the United States, could it happen again?

“Davis was an eye-opener,” said Sean Seamans, a camper at Occupy San Francisco. “As with all ‘non-lethal’ items, as long as you put the ‘non’ in front, it gives you the excuse to use it liberally. And if you have asthma or respiratory issues, it puts lives at risk.”

Pepper spray, sometimes known by its formal name oleoresin capsicum, is a concentrated version of the substances that give spicy peppers their heat. In the human body, these substances release a brain-signaling compound called Substance P. Among other things, Substance P causes the airways to close, triggering uncontrollable coughing and making it difficult to breathe.

“Occupational Health Services, Inc., [a private research facility in Kansas City, Missouri], reported that because [oleoresin capsicum] caused the subject’s breathing passages to swell and constrict, the use of OC on persons with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma could, in rare instances, cause death,” according to the ACLU report.

Local police don’t see it that way. “People do not die from pepper spray itself. There are other, associated factors,” such as alcohol or drug use, as well as the “hog-tie” or hobble restraint, Esparza said. “The pepper spray we use is nothing more than Tabasco sauce in a canister.”

Hmm. According to Tabasco’s website, its spiciest sauce — made of habanero peppers — is a bit more than 7,000 on the Scoville scale, used to measure capsaicin’s potency. Meanwhile, U.S.-grade pepper spray rates somewhere above 2 million on the Scoville scale, according to Scientific American.

While the ACLU report called for better tracking and oversight into police use of pepper spray, other agencies went further. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights — then based in San Francisco, demanded a moratorium on the practice, in part because of its potential lethality. No police departments took them up on the demand, according to Ella Baker spokesman Abel Habtegeorgis.

“You’re quicker to use things like that because you’re told that this is not lethal, when in all actuality, your haste in using them can prove to be deadly,” Habtegeorgis said. “If police are going to have these weapons that can be deadly, they should use the same precaution they would use for a gun.”

Eight Headwaters Forest demonstrators won a victory over the police use of pepper spray in 2005, when a Humboldt County judge ruled that officers used excessive force in swabbing the stuff into protester’s eyes. However, the precedent only applies within that county, according to Headwaters Forest Defense spokeswoman Karen Pickett.

“It’s way too limited,” Pickett said. Although the Headwaters trial focused on pepper spray’s potential to cause permanent eye damage, some court evidence showed that it can be fatal when people have respiratory problems.

No Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have died after being pepper-sprayed — and SFPD hasn’t used it on local protesters, according to Esparza and Seamans.

During a recent raid, “I had eight officers on me at one time, and pepper spray was threatened,” Seamans said. He keeps goggles and a respirator at hand, just in case.

“Officers don’t like to use force unless we have to,” Esparza said. “But when someone’s given a lawful order, it’s against the law for them not to follow those orders. If you do what the officer tells you, there’s no need for further escalation.”

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly’s online news column, The Snitch.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 30, 2011 at 8:20 PM

San Francisco’s special education classes disproportionately filled with minority students

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Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
September 18, 2011

In Rachel Kayce’s classroom at Dianne Feinstein Elementary, students illustrate cards depicting their dreams.

“I want to be on Broadway one day.” “My goal is to be a soccer player.” “I will follow directions the first time I’m told.”

As that final dream suggests, this is no everyday classroom. It’s a special day class for third- through fifth-graders considered “emotionally disturbed,” a category within special education.

Here, along with lessons in reading comprehension, vocabulary and cursive handwriting, eight 8- to 10-year-olds learn to master intense emotions. One student dissolves into tears as Kayce helps him tally his points for the morning lesson. Another is reminded to stop slapping her hands because it’s distracting. Outside, a student from a neighboring classroom howls with rage.

“Most of my students don’t have the ability to emotionally regulate, or don’t practice it, which can lead to more acting out,” Kayce said. “Others need practice with boundaries and structure.”

Of the nine students in Kayce’s class on a recent morning, four are black. That’s about par for the course. Although black students make up just 10.8 percent of the San Francisco Unified School District’s population, 22.8 percent of special-education students and 47 percent of “emotionally disturbed” students are black.

Higher-than-expected numbers of black students also show up among those with learning disabilities, along with Hispanic students, who also cluster in the “speech and language impairment” category.

This disproportionality is not new. In 1971, black students fought the SFUSD’s use of racially biased IQ tests to sequester them in classes for “educable mentally retarded” students. The tests were banned, but black and Hispanic students still wind up in special-education classrooms at higher rates than their white or Asian peers.

Statewide, the SFUSD was one of 61 of the state’s 838 school districts with disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic students in special education in the 2008-09 school year, and one of 42 that violated state special-education policies, according to a report from the California Department of Education.

“There’s institutional racism there,” said Katy Franklin, a member of the SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. “When a white kid throws a chair they think, ‘Autistic.’ When a black kid does this, they’re labeled emotionally disturbed. I don’t think it’s deliberate; it’s just what happens.”

Subtle things, such as being taught at home not to make eye contact, can land kids in hot water, said Patricia Fitzsimmons, a former special-education teacher who now teaches law and directs the child advocacy clinic at the University of San Francisco.

“If they’re acting out, and the teacher thinks, ‘The kid isn’t looking at me when I’m talking,’ it’s seen as aggressive, or unwillingness to participate,” Fitzsimmons said.

As with many special-education students, kids labeled emotionally disturbed are placed in separate classrooms such as Kayce’s. This separation, combined with over-representation, leads black students to lose access to the general-education curriculum, be misclassified and receive services that don’t meet their needs, according to a report by the Council for Exceptional Children.

Such placements can follow them for the rest of their lives. In 2005, less than half of special-education students went on to college, according to a report from the National Center for Special Education Research. Just 56 percent were employed, earning an average of $9.10 per hour. Sixty-one percent of emotionally disturbed youth had been arrested.

“They’re seen as the bad kids, and then special education becomes a feeder system to [juvenile hall] to prison,” Fitzsimmons said.

This year, the SFUSD is deploying a $45,000 state grant to study the roots of this disproportionality in special education, according to Cecelia Dodge, the district’s special-education director. After two years of analysis, leaders will develop steps for fixing the problem.

But others are skeptical the grant will help.

“We’ve been studying it until the cows come home,” said Linda Plack, executive vice president of the teachers’ union.

Plack believes the sources of overrepresentation come from outside the classroom.

“Not enough of our children have the advantages they need when they enter our school system,” she said. “They don’t have the books in the home, the attention, the nutrition they need.”

Daniel Losen, a researcher on UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, does not believe poverty alone could play such a big role.

“Poverty usually has some increase in risk of having a disability, but it doesn’t come close to explaining these huge disparities,” Losen said.

Also this year, the district is beginning to take special-education students in kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades out of their separate classrooms and integrate them with their general-education peers, according to SFUSD spokeswoman Gentle Blythe. Other grades will follow in future years.

State law requires all special-ed students to be taught in the least-segregated environment possible. In 2010-11, 24 percent of emotionally disturbed students were in general-education classrooms, an integration process known as “inclusion.” Another 47 percent were in separate classrooms, and 29 percent were in private or institutional settings, Blythe said.

But the district’s integration efforts may not affect these kids. “I don’t think the emotionally disturbed students will be put into inclusion,” Franklin said. “They’re not going to put violent kids into classrooms.”

Dodge admits that the fixes the SFUSD is pursuing now are a long time in coming.

“It takes a very sustained effort,” she said. “It takes consistency and leadership, and there hasn’t necessarily been that.”

Racially biased tests condemned in past

When Linda Plack began teaching in San Francisco in 1963, the schools were racially segregated. Almost 40 years later, the executive vice president of the United Educators of San Francisco says black students are still struggling for an equal education.

Numerous court rulings have required the district to keep its schools integrated. However, black and Hispanics have continued to be singled out and over-represented in many areas, including special education.

Brown v. Board of Education proscribed desegregation nationwide in 1954, but it wasn’t until 1971, when a student named David Johnson sued the San Francisco Unified School District in a class-action case, which federal judges ordered the district to integrate.

That same year, six black SFUSD children — including one named Larry P. — challenged the district’s use of IQ tests to funnel kids into special-education programs for “educable mentally retarded” students.

It took eight years, but in Larry P. v. Riles, a judge ruled that IQ tests were biased against black students. He ordered the SFUSD to stop administering the tests or using them to place students in programs for retarded students capable of classroom learning.

In 1968-69, black children were 27 percent of that population but just about 9 percent of the state school population, according to court documents.

“These apparent overenrollments could not be the result of chance,” Judge Cecil Poole of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the ruling.

At the time, the SFUSD argued that there was a higher incidence of mental retardation among blacks.

“This theory fails to account for the problem, because even if it is assumed that black children have a 50 percent greater incidence of this type of mental retardation, there is still less than a one in 100,000 chance that the enrollment could be so skewed toward black children,” Poole wrote.

Since then, however, the numbers have not changed much. Today, statewide, 7.5 percent of all students and 10.9 percent of special-education students are black. In San Francisco, those numbers are 10.8 percent and 25.8 percent, respectively.

Repeated shortcomings

In 2009 and 2010, San Francisco school officials studied disproportionality in their special-education programs. In May 2010, the California Department of Education demanded that the San Francisco Unified School District correct 21 special-ed violations. The district failed to test students’ vision and hearing, often failed to use the right tools to assess disabilities and tested young students with assessments meant for older students. The district reportedly corrected all problems, although state officials will investigate this year.

A sampling of the district’s violations

* Didn’t consult students’ assessment teams to review progress and determine whether students continued to be disabled.
* Didn’t provide parents information about their child’s primary language and language-proficiency status in their child’s assessment plan.
* Didn’t hire interpreters to make sure parents understand what’s happening at assessment meetings.
* Didn’t make sure that the education plans for students learning English met the language needs of the student, or ensured access to the general-education curriculum.
* Didn’t make sure the education plans for students learning English included activities they needed to gain fluency.
* Didn’t consider the language needs of students learning English, particularly when setting academic and fluency goals.
* Didn’t show that assessments include information on how to help students return to, and make progress in, the general curriculum.
* It didn’t provide the results of student assessments in the students’ primary languages.

Source: California Department of Education

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 18, 2011 at 12:06 AM