School Notes: Docca Apologizes for Using the Word ‘Retarded’ During Public Meeting

Plus: Walter Johnson cracks down on vaping activity


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School board member Judy Docca last week delivered an apology for a remark she made earlier this year.

Via Montgomery County Board of Education

School board member Judy Docca last week publicly apologized for using the word “retarded”—considered derisive to people with intellectual disabilities—in a self-deprecating remark.

“I have to apologize to my colleagues and to staff for using a term that I should not have used in July,” she said Tuesday. “I really regret having done that, and there is no excuse for it.”

Docca made the remark during a July 6 meeting for the swearing in of the new student board member, Matt Post. She used the term while describing how quickly Post was able to grasp and analyze some information that she and the student were reviewing together.

“We got new material, and he was able to dissect it right away and ask really pertinent questions about what we were being presented. Made me look really, mmm, retarded,” she said, hesitating a moment before choosing the final word. (Docca's remarks begin at about the 40th minute on this clip.)

No one commented on Docca’s statement at the time.

The term “mentally retarded” was used for generations as a clinical term for people with intellectual disabilities, but is now seen as a pejorative slur. In 2010, then-President Barack Obama signed legislation that required the federal government to use the term “intellectual disability” instead. Public campaigns against the “R-word” have successfully made it unacceptable term in social uses, too.

School board members earlier said last week that they appreciated Docca’s willingness to take responsibility for her words.

“We are a community of learners. We can all learn from each other, and being able to talk about when we make mistakes like that helps us all to create more awareness around issues, around equity and understanding,” school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said.

Docca, 78, of Montgomery Village recently announced she is running for her fourth term on the school board.

Bethesda mother Gena Mitchell said the comment was “disappointing,” especially coming from someone who’s in a school system leadership position and sits on a committee that deals with policy for special-needs populations.

“She didn’t just say the R-word in reference to our children, but she said it as a joke and as a derogatory joke. So, that, I think, is worse,” said Mitchell, whose 15-year-old daughter has Down syndrome. “It’s not OK to make that population the brunt of a joke. … It hurts.”

Mitchell said she understands that people make mistakes, and elected leaders who are often in the public eye are no exception. However, she said the school board should have addressed the comment right away rather than waiting four months. Docca’s apology also sounded somewhat “flip” to Mitchell, since she didn’t direct it to the special-needs population or acknowledge the term’s impact, she added.

“Make us believe that it actually matters,” Mitchell said of the apology.

Walter Johnson administration gets tough on vaping

Administrators at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda have taken a new approach to students caught vaping, according to school’s student newspaper.

The Pitch reported that Jennifer Baker, the school’s principal, in October announced that the penalty for vaping during school or school-sponsored events would be two days of out-of-school suspension and one day of in-school suspension.

Baker said that students have been using the devices at school activities and in class. The student newspaper said that with the new policy, school administrators are taking similar approaches to vaping and marijuana use.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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