Discord at state school for deaf in DeKalb follows hiring of new leader

Falcons defensive end Jamaal Anderson signs the letter L as he spells his name while visiting the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf in this AJC file photo. Students and former employees are unhappy with the school's new superintendent hired by the state.
Falcons defensive end Jamaal Anderson signs the letter L as he spells his name while visiting the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf in this AJC file photo. Students and former employees are unhappy with the school's new superintendent hired by the state.



Several students have protested and some teachers have resigned at one of Georgia’s schools for the deaf over the state education department’s selection of a new school leader.

The Georgia Department of Education operates two schools for the deaf and hard of hearing, including one in DeKalb County, where the deaf superintendent who left in June was replaced by a woman last month who can hear.

The fact that the new superintendent is white further aggravated staff, including former employees who say Black employees were passed over for promotion.

Students at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf in Clarkston held protests earlier this week, before COVID-19 led to a two-week closure. News outlets for the deaf reported that the students were concerned about discrimination against, and dismissive attitudes toward, deaf people ― the term is “audism” ― and people of color.

The state education agency said through a spokeswoman that it “stands opposed to audism and other forms of prejudice” and wants to meet with the students to hear their grievances.

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.”

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