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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)- California officials have warned 49 school districts that they have an unusually high number of black students in special education programs who are labeled emotionally disturbed.

Letters sent by the state Department of Education in July told the districts their special ed classes were "significantly disproportionate" racially during a four-year period ending last year, The Sacramento Bee reported (

The agency sends letters to school districts annually if they have a disproportionate number of students of any particular race in special education programs. Those districts must develop intervention plans that will be monitored by the state.

"They need to review their policies, procedures and practices to make sure there isn't any bias or discrimination," said Fred Balcom, director of special education programs for the California Department of Education.

Previously, only about 20 California districts received the "significantly disproportionate" designation each year. But a new federal formula for determining compliance more than doubled the number facing sanctions, Balcom said.

Topping the latest list is the San Juan Unified School District serving Carmichael, Orangevale, Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks, Rancho Cordova and parts of Sacramento.

In the San Juan district, roughly one of every 35 black students – 101 individuals – was designated emotionally disturbed last year, compared with one out of 80 statewide, according to data from the Department of Education.

In 2004, Congress directed states to require school districts with a "significantly disproportionate" number of minority students in special education programs to dedicate 15 percent of their federal allotment for educating special ed students to preventive programs.

Schools often give the special ed label to students who may present a challenge for teachers for other reasons, said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, a research group that focuses on poor, minority students.

"Designating a student as emotionally disturbed is an easy way to exit a troublesome child out of school," Ramanathan said. "It's a good way to move a kid from the school and into a special-day classroom."

Being classified as emotionally disturbed gives students access to specialized services and counseling, but the label can hurt them too, he said.

"It follows them all the way through life," Ramanathan said.