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Study hunts factors tying blacks to special education

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RICHMOND, Va. - A single bad test score can't bounce a child into special education.

Making that switch requires meeting with a committee that includes the child's parents and educators. It may involve calling in a psychologist or a social worker. It means tests and evaluations.

The process almost sounds scientific, but it's not. It can be subjective. And that interests state lawmakers who want to know why black students are over-represented in Virginia's special education classrooms.

Education professor James M. Patton of the College of William and Mary has studied the trend, which, he said, is a national problem. "Subjective observations, subjective thought does enter into the process," said Patton.

The Joint Subcommittee Studying the Overrepresentation of African-American Students in Special Education Programs has met for two years. Its goal is to recommend legislation for the 2001 session of the General Assembly.

Del. A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat from Henrico who chairs the panel, said members are still wrestling with what is clearly a complex problem that involves not only the attitudes of teachers, but of parents and students and may involve factors other than race.

Blacks represent about 20 percent of Virginia's population. They represent about 28 percent of all special education students, but that percentage jumps in certain categories of special ed. The highest: Educable mentally retarded, where about 51 percent of the students are black.

In August, Del. Paul C. Harris of Charlottesville, the only black Republican in the General Assembly, suggested that economic status might figure into the equation, not just race. He based that on anecdotal evidence, having seen a disproportionate number of poor children while touring special ed classrooms in his district.

Patton agreed, saying there is a "confluence of variables" that has resulted in this problem. And although research is ongoing and data are hard to come by, poverty is one variable.

Other research is focusing on how students are referred as candidates for special education. That's an important step, because 60 percent to 70 percent of students who are referred end up with some type of special education label, Patton said.

How a black student speaks, how he or she dresses, and even body movements can result in a student being wrongly steered toward special education, he said.

Virginia has a five-year State Improvement Plan for Special Education it started last year that provides for "cultural competency training" for teachers and staff so they have a better understanding of cultural differences.

Patton said race plays a role in a different, but related, education issue: why blacks are under-represented in gifted programs. Here the issue is not the teacher, but the black student - especially black male students who may feel pressure from their peers to shun gifted programs.

Black students aspiring to get good grades or win a spot in a gifted program can be accused of being elitist or "acting white," Patton said. "The notion of acting white," he said, "is very prevalent."

Patton, who is black, told reporters the story of a youngster in a summer program who asked him: "Dr. Patton, why do you sound like a white person when you talk?"

Patton answered by saying that he wanted to show students different ways of talking, and if you had to assign a color to it, you should say he was "talking green," because it was the language of business. The next year, the excited youngster came up to him and said, "I've been talking very green, and I've also been talking black. But I've been talking green more, and it helps me."

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