An African American male who acts up in class, sasses a teacher or gets in a fight at a Montgomery County school is more likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed than a white student. And, according to a new report, he is more likely than an emotionally disturbed white male to be bused to the county's most restrictive school.
This disparity shows up most clearly in two sets of maps that Superintendent Jerry D. Weast will present today to the Board of Education. In a thousand tiny lines, the maps show that most white students identified as emotionally disturbed are sent to special programs in their nearby home schools. There, they may take general education classes, play sports, work on the yearbook and have a chance to learn "normal" behavior from their peers.
Most lines on the map for black students, however, lead to Mark Twain, a special middle and high school that sits on an isolated campus off Norbeck Road in Rockville. Of the 200 or so students at Mark Twain, nearly half are on parole, according to a recent survey. Forty percent get reduced-price lunches, a sign of poverty. Sixty percent have a history of drug abuse. Two out of three live in single-parent homes. Fifteen percent are on medication. One in four has been sexually abused. And half of them will skip at least one day of school a week.
There is no yearbook. No drama club this year. No foreign language classes, even though they are required for graduation, county officials said. The curriculum is "watered down," said Frieda K. Lacey, Weast's executive assistant.
Some teachers may send black children into special education thinking that the smaller class sizes and special attention will help them, a phenomenon educators call "compassionate coding." Instead, a vicious cycle is born: sending troubled students, mostly African Americans, who are already behind to an environment that practically ensures they will stay that way. The system, Weast said, only perpetuates "the artificial need for special education."
"You can't get away from the fact that there's a racial issue here," said Ray Bryant, director of the county's special education program. "Is it racist? We have to figure that out. Can you be a benign racist? I don't think so."
School board member Kermit V. Burnett (Silver Spring) said the warehousing had to stop. "If the black parents were aware that these kinds of things were happening, they would be outraged," he said.
In Montgomery County, African Americans make up 21 percent of the 130,000-student population, but they make up 35 percent of those labeled emotionally disturbed. At Mark Twain, more than half the students are black, and 35 percent are white. In the less restrictive "satellite" programs for emotionally disturbed students at regular schools, the numbers are reversed: Half the students are white, 35 percent are black.
And Weast is concerned. From the day he arrived in August, he had heard about the problems from Jim Robinson, a longtime African American parent activist. Weast had Bryant run some numbers and draw some maps that clearly showed for the first time the racial disparity in placing emotionally disturbed students.
"I want to search this problem out and find a solution, especially if the problem has the depth that on the surface it appears to have," Weast said. "It leaves me with a real big question in my mind: Are we doing right for the children?"
In a memo to board members reporting his findings, Weast acknowledges that the problems are certainly not new; the federal government for years has been investigating school districts across the country, searching for reasons that more African American children are put into special education classes. And he admits that a number of county efforts in the past, though well intentioned, "have fallen short."
To change that disappointing record, Weast has proposed spending $380,000 for a system to monitor where children in special education are going and why, and to pinpoint which principals and teachers tend to send them there.
Part of the problem, Weast said, has nothing to do with special education. It has everything to do with teaching children from different cultures, races and backgrounds and getting the training to better deal with aggressive or disrespectful behavior.
"I think some of the disturbance may be caused by frustration from not getting certain skill sets, like learning to read and do math, addressed early," Weast said. "Then that frustration starts an acting-out behavior, which then gets labeled, and then the child gets placed.
"They're put into a structure to address the label," Weast continued, "not address the original problem."
As for what the numbers would suggest--that more African American students are emotionally disturbed--he said: "I just don't buy it."
On a recent day at Mark Twain, some students made lacquer bottles in the art barn, some worked in the rain on a garden from which they hope to sell flower cuttings, and others, in a science class, fried bread to learn how toast turns brown.
In one history classroom that, like the others, had its own bathroom and a closet with a window for timeout, only one student had shown up for class. Next door, a student leapt from his English class yelling, "Shut your mouth," and "She's trying to get me," as others tried to calm him.
One African American youth sat quietly in a room off the media center. He gently fingered a pattern of scars, records of previous fights, on his hands and arms. Last year, the drama club inspired in him dreams of being a movie star. But this year, there is no drama club. And now he's stuck.
"The environment's crazy in here. You've got people cussing out teachers and not being where they're supposed to be," he said quietly. "They say you can get out. But you can't. And I can't survive in here."