Currently, the school’s top leadership includes no people of color or deaf people: both the superintendent and one of two assistant principals are white women who can hear, the agency said. Another assistant principal position is unfilled.
Black students make up the largest proportion of enrollment, followed by Hispanic students, state records show.
State officials confirm 12 employees have quit the school. Terynce Butts is one of them. Butts, who can hear and is Black, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an email that several Black employees, both hearing and deaf, were among those who quit because they felt the state did not respect diversity and the hiring process reflected that.
“I’m concerned with equity and inclusion for everyone. Racism is a concern, yes, but also audism and homophobia,” Butts wrote.
He said a Black, deaf woman applied for the superintendent’s job and left the school after she didn’t get an interview. He said the school also effectively suspended its diversity, equity and inclusion committee.
The state says it hired the best person for the job “based on a full vetting process including review of applications, interviews, and reference checks” and that every qualified applicant was interviewed. It says the diversity committee was “paused” by a state-level administrator during the tenure of the prior superintendent because the committee was creating policies without consulting the state. School employees are state employees, so they are bound by state policies.
The former superintendent, John Serrano, is now an administrator at Gallaudet University, a private school for the deaf in Washington, D.C. He declined to be interviewed, saying in an email that his “heart goes out to the students and teachers/staff affected by the turn of events following my departure.”
Tawny Holmes Hlibok, a deaf associate professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet, said Georgia had set a precedent of deaf leadership by hiring Serrano only to roll back that progress by replacing him with someone who is not deaf.
The longtime leader of the Georgia School for the Deaf in Cave Spring in Floyd County, the other state school for the deaf and hard of hearing, also is not deaf.
Nationally, deaf leaders of deaf schools remain in the minority but their numbers are growing, including in the South, she said, noting that Louisiana recently hired its first deaf and Black leader for a school for the deaf and Tennessee at least has a leader who was raised by deaf parents.
“If a deaf student goes to a deaf school and they see the leader as a hearing person they’re going to say, you know, that means that I can’t be a leader,” Holmes Hlibok said through an interpreter. “Are we going to accept a male superintendent or a male authority at a woman’s college? No. It’s the same thing.”
She said she communicated with two former employees at the school who told her the new superintendent could not use sign language well. “And if you have somebody that can’t even communicate with the kids how is that going to work?”
The state says the new superintendent, Lisa Buckner, is “proficient” in American Sign Language, having worked as a teacher of deaf and hard of hearing students for 18 years.
The state also says members of the deaf community were included in Buckner’s interview panel.
Yet the National Association of the Deaf is critical of the way the state hired the new superintendent. The group says school leaders should be fluent in English and sign language and have a working knowledge of education in both, and recommends that schools look within the deaf and hard of hearing community for leaders.
“By including the deaf community in the search process, schools will better be able to identify any qualified candidates who are deaf or hard of hearing,” association CEO Howard A. Rosenblum wrote in an email to the AJC. “These recommendations were not utilized when searching for the next leader for the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf.”
He encouraged Georgia “to listen to the pleas of the AASD students, and address their concerns regarding the school’s leadership which has affected both staff and student morale.”