A Walk across Cultural Lines

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Study says 'stroll' can steer teachers wrong

April 23, 2001
By Tamara Henry (USA TODAY)

As a middle school teacher in the mid-1990s, La Vonne Neal watched with amusement the deliberate swagger and exaggerated dip in the stroll of some of her black students. But now, as an education researcher, she thinks there's a serious side to that walk.

Neal's research at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, suggests what is liable to become a controversial theory: that the stylized walk or "cultural movement" could lead teachers to refer the young men to special education. Her work adds testimony to recent studies by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University that found black children are almost three times more likely than white children to be labeled mentally retarded and then assigned to special education classes.

Neal recalls that one of her duties as a teacher at Cedar Valley Middle School in Round Rock, Texas, was standing in the hallways to monitor the students as they moved from one class to another.

"I would see the boys very stylistically walk from locker to classroom," she says. "When I saw that, I saw it differently than my white peers. I saw it simply as this young man saying "Here I am in my uniqueness,' whereas many white teachers saw it in a negative way and were conjuring up negative stereotypes with the movement."

'Certain walk' made guys look cool'

In his 1994 autobiography, Makes Me Wanna Holler, Nathan McCall describes how important perfecting the stylized walk is to black males:

"The (walk) was a proud, defiant, bouncy stride. You take a regular step with one leg, then sort of hop or drag the other on the second step. The best ... twisted their torsos slightly and swung their arms in unison with that hop. It made guys look cool and tough."

Says Neal, "Movement style is culturally conditioned; perceptions of movement style are also conditioned." She recently published her research in the Intervention in School and Clinic journal and last week presented it at the American Educational Research Association convention in Seattle.

About 90% of the nation's 3 million teachers are white and tend to acquire their perceptions of other ethnic groups from the mass media, she says. Movies, TV shows and news reports, and music videos show the walk in association with "inappropriate behavior" such as aggression, she says.

About 6.4 million students, ages 6 through 21 are in special education, which provides free tutoring and special instruction by teachers with specific training for students with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education says black students make up 21% of special education, although they account for only 16% of the total 52.7 million public and private school students.

Students are identified for special education in a number of ways, including teacher and doctor referrals and testing. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), parents also are involved in the group that decides a child's eligibility. Eligible disabilities include autism, hearing impairment, mental retardation and emotional disturbance, among others.

'Stroll' vs. 'Standard' walk

Neal conducted her study in 1997, one year after she left her job as an eighth-grade history teacher at Cedar Valley. Joining her in the research were Audrey Davis McCray and Gwendolyn Webb-Johnson of the University of Texas-Austin and Scott Bridgest of Southwestern.

For the study, Neal went back to her old school and recruited two 13 year-old males, one bla