To find out what the school districts in Howard, Harford, Prince George's and Baltimore counties are up against, look to Montgomery County.
Two years before federal civil rights officials began reviewing Maryland school districts for overrepresentation of minorities in special education, Montgomery County began tackling the issue its own.
The school district in 1994 appointed an officer to ensure that schools were doing everything possible to correct learning and behavior problems before assigning labels to children.
The officer, Frieda K. Lacey, found that general-education teachers lacked training in ways to work with low-performing students. She found tests for emotional disturbance that could be culturally biased. She found that parents needed to be more involved in their children's placement.
"When students are not successful in general education, the preferred solution is to refer them to special education," said Dr. Lacey, the district's equity assurance officer.
The four school districts and Montgomery -- all placed under review by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights -- know the office is nothing to fool with. The agency can deny federal aid to districts found to discriminate, though the likelihood of it happening in these cases is slim.
In the past two years, the office has begun administrative action against four school districts across the country and has sent six cases to the U.S. Department of Justice for litigation. At least two districts over the past 15 to 20 years have chosen to stop receiving federal funds rather than correct violations, agency spokesman Rodger D. Murphey said.
In the Maryland cases, civil rights officials stress that they have not concluded that the districts are violating civil rights laws. The agreements now being drafted reflect the agency's new collaborative approach, working with districts rather than conducting traditional investigations. Officials emphasize that they are not investigating the districts and that all, to some extent, have been addressing the issue.
"They have all been extremely cooperative and forthright," said Brenda L. Wolff, deputy regional director of the agency's office in Philadelphia. "We were able to piggyback on what they had already been doing."
The Maryland school systems face the complex and delicate task of examining whether any children are referred to special education not because of disabilities but because of other factors, such as cultural differences or learning problems related to poverty, poor nutrition or health care, or home environment.
A statistical analysis of each district's enrollment data showed that black children were overrepresented in programs for the mentally retarded, seriously emotionally disturbed and learning disabled.
In Baltimore County, for instance, black students made up 23 percent of the general school population in 1994-1995, but 40 percent of the group identified as mentally retarded, 31 percent of those seriously emotionally disturbed and 29 percent of the learning disabled.
HTC In Montgomery County, Dr. Lacey recalls a fifth-grader last year who routinely walked out of class, left the building and threatened people. School officials suspected he was seriously emotionally disturbed.
Dr. Lacey took the boy into her office, blocked the door and refused to wince when he picked up a chair. Then she set a timer and made a deal: The boy could leave her office only after he sat quietly for 15 minutes. And he did. His teachers subsequently adopted the timer strategy and he remained in the regular classroom.
Montgomery County, which submitted a preliminary agreement to the Office for Civil Rights recently, has taken a number of other measures, such as training teachers, improving monitoring and toughening its screening for children suspected of being emotionally disturbed. School system officials found that the tests they were using for that classification did not include minorities in the sample group when they were designed and concluded they could be culturally biased. School psychologists are now encouraged to use other tests.
The school system has also started a program that assigns volunteers to work with parents and act as their advocates during their children's special education screening process.
Montgomery's numbers have improved, though only slightly. The proportion of black students identified as learning disabled dropped by 0.6 percent in 1994-1995, and the proportion identified as seriously emotionally disturbed dropped 0.1 percent.
The debate gets thorny where poverty and other environmental factors create signs of disabilities, some experts say.
"There are all sorts of federal and state laws and procedures preventing referral on the basis of race," said Philip J. Burke, chairman of the special education department at the University of Maryland in College Park. But, he said, research shows that medical and prenatal care, language skills, family support and readiness for school also affect educational performance, and "deficits in those areas are some of the key factors that cause children to be referred to special education."
"One of the best predictors for incidence of children with learning disabilities is the number of children living at or below the poverty rate," he said.
Sandra E. Marx, special education director in Howard County, said she's especially concerned with the lack of options for children -- white and minority -- with learning problems.
"There's quite often no other place they can go other than special education," she said.
Pub Date: 4/06/96