Md. school of­fi­cial re­grets word choice

Special-ed ad­vo­cates called for apol­ogy


Lyda Astrove said she was stunned when she heard a school board mem­ber from Mary­land ut­ter a word 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 par­ent­teacher as­so­ci­a­tions, wrote the board Fri­day, say­ing 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 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 that 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 in 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.”

“Peo­ple need to know this is part of her record.” Lyda Astrove, who raised the is­sue of Docca’s word us­age at a cer­e­mony

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