Lyda Astrove said she was stunned when she heard a school board member from Maryland utter a word that she and many others consider a slur against people with intellectual disabilities.
"I couldn't believe my ears," the longtime advocate said.
In recent days, reactions like hers have touched off calls for an apology from Montgomery County School Board member Judy Docca, who serves as the board's vice president. On Tuesday, Docca spoke out at a meeting.
"I have to apologize to my colleagues and to staff for using a term that I should not have used in July," she said as the school board met. "I referred to myself as being retarded because I forget everything. . . . I really regret having done that, and there is no excuse for it. So, I just wanted you to know that I do apologize."
It was a stark moment in a school system that prides itself on diversity and inclusion, and it sparked a conversation about use of the derogatory word. While Docca's colleagues spoke of accepting her apology, the issue was not fully resolved in the community.
"This one fell flat and wasn't enough," Astrove said. "I didn't hear her apologize to the children."
A school district spokesman said Docca declined an interview request made Tuesday by The Washington Post.
Jeanne Taylor, special education committee chair for the countywide council of parent-teacher associations, wrote the board Friday, saying that she was appalled by the use of such a hurtful word and asking that such expressions be condemned.
"Over the years, the "R" word, originally used as a clinical term, has become a form of derision, similar to 'moron' or 'idiot,' " she wrote. "The term is so offensive that various public agencies — including those under the federal government — have stopped using it."
On Tuesday, Taylor said she was surprised Docca "did not apologize to parents and students, who are the people most affected and offended by the outdated and offensive term."
The issue came to light last week, when Astrove posted a message about it in a discussion group frequented by the special education community in Montgomery County, which has the state's largest public school system.
Docca had made the statement at a July swearing-in ceremony for a student board member, Matthew Post. Praising him, she cited the skill he had shown in dissecting information and asking pertinent questions.
"It made me look really, mmm, retarded," she said, seeming to laugh. "But anyway, I really appreciate your intellect, and I think that you're going to be really a wonderful person working with this board."
Astrove said she did not call out the incident in July because another board member told her Docca did not intend to seek another term in office. When Astrove learned Docca had plans to run again, she said she felt people should know.
Docca was elected to a third term in 2014 and is slated to run again in 2018. She is a retired educator and principal in her late 70s who has taken a strong interest in the achievement gap and other issues that affect students of color.
"People need to know this is part of her record," Astrove said.
Julie Reiley, a parent who has been active on special education issues in the county and state, said she also called on Docca to apologize and is glad the school board member did, although she has not had the chance to listen to her public statement.
"For me, it's not a matter of being political in any way," Reiley said. "It's really hurtful to hear adults in particular use this term. I know my son has been teased, and I know other kids have been teased."
"We need the leaders of our school district to understand their words matter and to set an example," she said.
Marty Ford, senior executive officer of public policy for the Arc, said she was surprised to see the term used by someone who works in education, because the word should not be commonly used.
The Arc is an organization that serves those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It used to have a different official name, one that included the term. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ford said, the organization began to see a "very, very strong push" by people with intellectual disabilities in the group, who didn't want the word used.
"In recent decades, it's been considered by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as a pejorative term, one that they don't like to hear, one that they feel is very demeaning," Ford said. "And that if they are going to be treated with respect, that would be a word that would not be used around them or about them."