The student body is deaf and diverse. School leadership is neither.
Student protests over the hiring of a white hearing superintendent have upset a deaf school that welcomes mostly black and Hispanic students in the Atlanta area and has drawn attention to whether the heads of institution should better reflect the identity of their students.
The Atlanta Area School for the Deaf, run by the Georgia Department of Education, is one of two public schools for the deaf in Georgia and serves approximately 180 students from Kindergarten to Grade 12, of which approximately 80% are black and Hispanic. .
The students protested the hiring, accusing the school and the Department of Education of racism and discrimination based on disability against the deaf community known as Audism. They noted that the school’s senior administration did not understand anyone of color or who was deaf.
Two weeks later, Superintendent Lisa Buckner, who has 22 years of experience as a Deaf teacher and administrator and who had recently worked in the Department of Education, resigned. The school has appointed an interim superintendent, who is also a hearing white woman, and is now seeking a permanent replacement.
The protests echoed a 1988 student uprising at Gallaudet University, the federally chartered private school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington. At the protest, which was seen as a historic moment for deaf people, the students succeeded in securing the university’s first deaf president and called attention to the long-standing challenges Deaf people face. .
Activism since then, including a controversy that saw two Gallaudet officials resign in 2020 while claiming the school discriminated against black deaf people in hiring and promotions, has increasingly referred to both the race and disability. Three decades after Gallaudet’s original protest, many in the deaf community say they are still fighting some of the same battles.
The protests in Atlanta followed Ms Buckner’s hiring in September. She replaced former superintendent John Serrano, who resigned in May after four years working as the school’s first deaf Latino leader.
The Atlanta school said it interviewed all applicants who met the minimum qualifications for the job. Meghan Frick, spokeswoman for Georgia’s Ministry of Education, said she “opposes audism and other forms of prejudice”. She described Ms. Buckner as an “educational leader” who was “proficient” in American Sign Language, or ASL.
But current and former staff members say Deaf employees and people of color have been overlooked for promotions, and staff and students have complained that Ms Buckner’s knowledge of ASL is low. In the original job posting, fluency in sign language was among the preferred and not required skills.
Many student demonstrators felt the new superintendent couldn’t understand them and looked down on them, according to Trinity Arreola, 18, a leader of the protest.
“It is as if we are going backwards,” said Ms. Arreola, a senior and president of the Latino Students Union. “It is as if we are stepping back to a time when the deaf were seen as limited and incapable.”
The school’s senior administration is made up of white hearing women in the roles of superintendent and vice-principal. In the 2020-21 school year, 79% of teachers were white and 60% of teachers heard, according to data from the Ministry of Education. Ms Buckner declined to answer questions about her decision to resign or about complaints from students and staff.
Since May, at least 12 other employees have left the school. Many of those who quit were deaf, people of color, or both, according to former agricultural teacher Emily Friedberg, 50, who is white and deaf.
After 12 years of working at the school, she said, she was pressured to resign in June – months before she found out who the new superintendent was – because of what she described as an environment ” hostile âled by the leadership of hearing white people she saidâ intimidated âdeaf staff and made inappropriate remarks about students of color.
Ms Frick said the Education Department was not aware of incidents like these at the school. She said officials encouraged anyone with concerns to contact the education department head.
Although the Gallaudet protest paved the way for new educational and employment opportunities for the deaf, schools for the deaf are still primarily run by hearing people and are rarely run by deaf colored people.
Of the 73 school leadership positions for 71 K-12 schools for the deaf across the country, 46 are occupied by hearing people, according to Tawny Holmes Hlibok, professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet. Of the 27 deaf school leaders – a number she says has more than doubled in the past seven years – three are people of color.
A growing body of research shows that students do better in school if they have role models that reflect their past.
âI notice that when I talk to deaf children in a school without a deaf leader and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they often limit themselves,â Professor Hlibok said, adding: âWhen I ask them if they want to be a teacher, lawyer or nurse, they say they can’t because this job is for a hearing person.
A 2019 report from the National Deaf Center found that 44.8% of Deaf Blacks and 43.6% of Deaf Native Americans were in the workforce, compared to 59% of Deaf Whites.
In addition to the lack of role models, many deaf students, especially deaf students of color, are not sufficiently prepared for college due to a lack of early language support services and a lack of instructional interpreters. certified in public schools, said Laurene E. Simms, interim bilingual chef at Gallaudet.
Black deaf students earn an undergraduate, masters, or doctorate degree. degrees at about half the rate for black hearing students and half the rate for white deaf students, according to another 2019 report from the National Deaf Center.
The loss of so many people of color on the staff at the Atlanta school has made many students less comfortable there, according to Katrina Callaway, 19, a senior. In the past, she said, she and her friends have confided in teachers who they can relate to about their problems, family life and friends, but now “students don’t. feel more like they can open up to anyone, âshe said.
âWhen I try to open up to someone who hasn’t had the same experiences,â she said, âI’m not always sure I can trust them and I have a lot of doubts. on myself “. She said that sometimes it seemed like white staff treated students differently based on their skin color.
More generally, activists in recent years have complained about “disability whitening”, or how widely it is seen through a white lens, despite statistics showing that black people are more likely to have a disability.
For example, according to Vilissa Thompson, a black activist with a disability who created the hashtag #DisabilitySoWhite on Twitter, media portrayals of people with disabilities and leaders of disability organizations are biased.
Recently, Netflix’s âDeaf Uâ reality TV series focused on Gallaudet College students was criticized for its lack of deaf women of color, even though less than half of the school’s students were white at the time. .
These larger issues have raised issues in places like the Atlanta School.
Ms Frick said the Georgia Ministry of Education is working to create leadership paths for teachers and school staff.
Mr Serrano, the former superintendent, declined to comment on his experience with the education department, but wrote in an email that he hoped the department would conduct a fair and inclusive search for the next superintendent.
âI firmly believe that students want and need a leader who is like them and who shares their experiences as deaf and hard of hearing people,â he wrote.