Special Education

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Federal Perspective: When Norma V. Cantu took the helm of the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights in 1993, she had no specific agenda, she now admits.

But, after meeting with education and community groups, she quickly identified overrepresentation of minority students in special education as a major concern, Ms. Cantu told a group of journalists gathered for an Education Writers Association conference in Boston this month. In fact, about two-thirds of the people she talked to five years ago came from the disability community, which had felt shut out of previous policy discussions, Ms. Cantu said. ("In the Line of Fire," Dec. 3, 1997.)

Now, after more than five years as an assistant secretary in the Education Department hierarchy, she said she has seen anecdotal evidence of progress, though much work remains to be done. "We are beginning to see the fruits of our efforts that began in 1993," she said.

Through investigating complaints, her office has ordered increases in some states in staff training, changes in referral and placement procedures, reassignment of some students, and sharing of best practices based on research, she said. The efforts have helped by raising awareness of the issue, she added.

Next year, she said, more resources will be available because the revised Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires states to analyze their data to show the percentages of minorities in their special education programs.

And while her office has been accused of being inefficient for accepting third-party complaints, which are filed by someone other than an alleged victim of bias, she has no plans to change. "Where the actual victim is a kid, I'd rather err on the side of being a little less efficient," she said.

CEC Symposium: The Council for Exceptional Children, a special education advocacy group based in Reston, Va., is also investigating minority overrepresentation in special education. The group hosted its third symposium on the issue this month in Washington. Participants received information on the latest teaching techniques and trends in services for minority students suspected of having disabilities, and how to avoid misperceptions and errors in judgment.

For instance, LaVonne I. Neal, a professor of special education at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, found that students who "jive walk"--or, in other words, wear trendy, low-cut jeans and walk with a swagger--are more likely to be referred by teachers for special education services.

The CEC holds symposiums on multicultural issues every two years.

--JOETTA L. SACK [email protected]

Vol. 18, Issue 12, Page 6

Published in Print: November 18, 1998, as Special Education

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