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Article of Interest - Special Education

Special Ed Gender Gap Stirs Worry

Some say boys singled out for wrong reasons.

by Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff and Bill Dedman, Boston Globe Correspondent, The Boston Glove, 7/8/02

Public schools in Massachusetts and nationwide place twice as many boys as girls in special education, a gender gap that extends from the biggest cities to the toniest suburbs to the tiniest towns, according to a Globe analysis of state and federal data.

But the size of the gender disparity in special education is not uniform from district to district. For example, for children diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, one special-education category, boys make up 90 percent of emotionally disturbed students in Kansas City, but only 55 percent in Milwaukee.

The more subjective the diagnosis of the student, the wider the gender gap, records show. In Massachusetts schools, boys are slightly more likely than girls to be identified with hearing or vision problems, and 11/2 times as likely to be retarded. But boys are twice as likely to be labeled with a learning disability, and more than three times as likely to be called emotionally disturbed.

Such differences raise a recurring worry: that special education is a way to push misbehaving students - mostly boys - or slower ones out of regular classrooms. Superintendents and special-education advocates insist this isn't commonplace, but Massachusetts Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said the gap suggests it.

''More boys get referred because they tend to act out. And it's an overidentification, because very often they don't necessarily have a disability at all. It's just that they're active,'' Driscoll said. ''Young girls tend to be passive and underidentified, because they're compliant, and sometimes it hides a disability. ... We have a responsibility to respond to these kinds of statistics, which we see all the time.''

Of the Commonwealth's roughly 160,000 disabled public school students, 66 percent are boys, according to 2000-01 enrollment figures from the state Department of Education. That figure matches national numbers that show that two-thirds of boys are classified as special-needs, receiving help for anything from severe physical impairments to behavior disorders.

The disparity in special education seems to depend as much on geography as disability. For example, in affluent Sherborn west of Boston, 77 percent of the town's special-education students last year were boys. Next door in Dover, the number dropped to 68 percent. In Burlington, nearly 70 percent of the town's special-needs students were boys - but just across Route 128 in Woburn, it was 60 percent. There's one elementary school in Orleans on Cape Cod, and boys comprised about 80 percent of its special-education enrollment. There's also one elementary school in Nahant on the North Shore - and boys made up 60 percent of the special-needs students, figures show.

The disparity from town to town flummoxes superintendents and authorities on special education. They say they are aware of cognitive, medical, and psychological reasons for the overall 2-to-1 gender gap. But those well-researched differences between boys' and girls' development do not explain why a boy in Deerfield is almost twice as likely to end up in special education as his peer in Williamsburg, according to the data. The gap persists even though special-education referrals are governed by state and federal laws.

''I suspect you get varying histories from town to town and varying cultures around special ed,'' said Martha Ziegler, founder of the Federation for Children with Special Needs, a Boston advocacy group. ''It always comes down to what's going on in the regular classrooms plus the outlook and practices of the administrators all the way to the superintendent.''

Nationally, special education is largely a boys club, with 1.9 million girls and 3.8 million boys classified as special education in 2000, according to numbers compiled by the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The gap in Massachusetts is about as wide, with 54,000 girls and 105,000 boys in 2001.

About 12 percent, or 1 in 8 children, in US public schools was disabled enough to require special education in 2000, the latest year for which national figures are available. In Massachusetts, a greater share of children were placed in special education: 1 in 6, or 17 percent, in 2001.

For more than 25 years, Massachusetts had one of the nation's most generous special-education laws, requiring districts to provide the ''maximum feasible benefit'' to disabled students. But two years ago, amid soaring costs and worries that some students received the often expensive services without truly needing them - the state Legislature enacted stricter eligibility requirements.

The new rules took hold in January, but educators say it is too early to gauge their effect.

Meanwhile, wide differences from town to town persist. Take Norfolk and Lincoln, both outside Route 128 and each with about 1,200 students. Both superintendents say they try to ensure that students don't end up in special education for the wrong reasons, such as academic problems that aren't driven by disabilities.

But last year, 73 percent of Norfolk's special-education students - compared to 57 percent of Lincoln's - were boys.

''I really wonder why this is true,'' said Norfolk School Superintendent Marcia A. Lukon, who has testified before the Legislature in favor of tightening special-education eligibility. ''We have a few severe behavior cases, but in general it's not the naughty little boys that get put in special ed.''

Jeanne Whitten, interim superintendent of schools in Lincoln, is equally baffled by her district's smaller gender gap: ''I'm wondering if perhaps we just abide by the rules and regulations of the Department of Education more so than others. There's no magic formula, clearly. We try to treat all children, all genders, all ethnic groups the same.''

Boys do exhibit some disorders with higher frequency - four times as many boys are autistic, specialists say, and three to four times as many boys are diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. Biologically, boys have more birth defects and mature at slower rates than girls. And in classrooms, boys are more prone to disrupt lessons if they struggle with learning, while girls turn more inward and simply tune out the teacher.

''Girls might sit quietly in the regular-ed classroom appearing as if they're getting it, but not causing behavioral disruptions because it's not part of their repertoire,'' said Jerome J. Schultz, a clinical neuropsychologist and director of the Learning Lab at Lesley University in Cambridge. ''Boys frustrated by reading or math or who find school a toxic place because of a lack of appropriate education might be more likely to act out physically - and do so in ways that would get the notice of the teacher.''

The gap cannot be explained entirely by the fact that boys develop more slowly because it persists throughout all ages. In Massachusetts, at age 6, the male-female ratio is 2.4 to 1, leveling off by age 9 at 1.9 to 1 - but it remains at that level through high school.

Orleans school officials insist they gauge first whether struggling students would be better off with extra attention or different teaching styles instead of special education. Moreover, some disabled students get special-education help but take regular-education classes. ''Just because students are referred doesn't mean they qualify,'' said Ann Caretti, director of student services for the Nauset Regional School District, which includes Orleans.

In the end, the strength of the local parent councils or parents' familiarity with complex educational law also can affect who gets special-education services.

When she lived in Burlington, Caroline Pooler resisted the district's suggestions that her second-grade son, who has a speech and language disorder, be transferred from regular-education classes into special-needs classes. After mediation and a lawyer's help, Pooler moved to Andover so her son could remain in regular-education classes while also getting special-education services.

''I do believe sometimes special education is a crutch,'' Pooler said. ''Some kids do need it. But there are times when kids could be in a regular-ed classrooms with the right accommodations.''

The Globe calculated disability rates by gender and diagnosis in each of the nation's 14,681 public school districts using information from the 2000 Elementary and Secondary School Survey by the Office for Civil Rights. For Massachusetts schools, later figures were available, for 2001 by district and for 2002 statewide, from the Massachusetts Department of Education. Figures for every school are at http://www.boston.com.

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