Md. School for the Deaf Parents and Alumni Decry Culture of Racism and Elitism, Demand More Oversight

Public hearing Thursday on the Maryland School for the Deaf. Screenshot.

Alumni and parents of students at the Maryland School for the Deaf say that the superintendent and Board of Trustees have repeatedly failed to address the pervasive culture of racism and elitism at the school and are demanding a systematic change in leadership.

Maria Hourihan, a former parent and employee, told state lawmakers during virtual public testimony on Thursday that she witnessed a teacher’s aide twisting the arm of a Black student in pre-K and immediately reported it to the teacher. But there was never a follow-up. That teacher’s aide is still working at MSD, she said. “The children are not safe and the staff is not safe.”

In mid-August, alumni and parents of students at MSD wrote an open letter to the Board of Trustees, calling for the immediate removal of James E. Tucker as superintendent and a reform in leadership. A Facebook page called “Voices of MSD Survivors” was also created as a platform to share their stories.

Tucker retired on Sept. 4.

In early September, The Baltimore Sun revealed allegations of racist and elitist incidents at MSD, including when a coach stood by while students referred to a Black classmate with a racial slur. Alumni and parents also claimed that students with connections to Gallaudet University, a school for deaf students in Washington D.C., were treated better than those without that connection.

“As a parent, what I saw repeatedly was elitism…generationally deaf students are given special treatments with sports, awards classes, grades, teachers etc.,” Catherine Griswold said during the public testimony. “Deaf students, who are second generation deaf, are next in line of priority. Newly deaf come beneath them and hard of hearing are treated very differently and almost like sub-class citizens.”

With campuses in Frederick and Ellicott City, the Maryland School for the Deaf was established in 1867 and offers public education to deaf and hard of hearing students. The governor selects the 19-member Board of Trustees, which is responsible for selecting the superintendent. But the state does not have the authority to sign off on the superintendent, interim superintendent Kevin Strachan clarified Thursday.

Lawmakers and parents questioned how much oversight the state can exercise over the school.

“Is MSD a private school or is it a state school? And if it is a state school, why is it separate from MSDE (Maryland State Department of Education)?” said Sarah Rosen, a parent of former students at MSD.

MSDE is responsible for the needs of deaf students as well, Rosen argued, but they have turned a “blind eye” to multiple reports of violations. She cited a state law that says “the Department, each county board, and the Maryland School for the Deaf shall work together to meet the educational needs of deaf children.”

MSDE officials say they have very little authority over MSD, which is “questionable,” said Dr. Barbara Dezmon, the former education chair for the Maryland State NAACP. MSDE is responsible for all the state’s public schools, which includes MSD, she said.

However, Strachan defended the school’s reputation, citing accreditation from three years ago, and expressed skepticism about the recent allegations. “A lot of these accusations have no time frame, no names, no sense of who did what when and we can’t investigate something that we don’t understand the details of,” he said.

After the national reckoning on race this summer, which Strachan referred to as “noise,” MSD asked students to share their stories of inequities with the Coordinator of Equity and Inclusion. But Strachan said the recent allegations were never shared with MSD.

“To this day, we don’t know what many of these accusations really mean,” he said.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) pushed back on Strachan’s description of what happened this summer as “noise.”

“I think that’s a little bit dismissive,” Pinsky said. “Even if a majority [of allegations] are shown not to be true, there’s usually a grain of truth in a lot of things…I think you need to be careful of calling those things noise. I think that sort of reduces it and if we want to send a message of openness and transparency and inclusion, and I think we have to give a little more respect than that.”

Strachan outlined steps that MSD has taken to address these concerns. This summer, MSD established six workgroups led by BIPOC employees (black, Indigenous and people of color), which worked for two weeks to identify racism at MSD through stories and to propose recommendations on how to improve the system.

MSD’s Board of Trustees will hire an independent consultant next month, who will identify systems and practices that are contrary to the school’s commitment to equity and inclusion and recommend changes, Strachan said.

MSD has also created a new position of Chief Diversity Officer, who will work with the superintendent to identify problems and ensure that MSD is “loyal to this commitment of equity and inclusion,” Strachan said.

Despite these efforts, state lawmakers and the public are calling for additional oversight of MSD.

“I have doubts of the cures or the remedies that have been suggested by the new superintendent…it seems that historically, the Maryland School of the Deaf has been operating on their own with little to no accountability to outside agencies, only to themselves,” Dezmon said.

“We need now some independent evaluation and analysis, not just something that’s just answerable to the school, but we need a report that can be completed and also come to our respected Senators and also later to be shared with the public,” she continued.

State lawmakers agreed.

“The concerns that have been brought forward are very serious,” Senator Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) said. “I’m just not getting a sense that this is being taken to the level of seriousness by the leadership of the school that really needs to reflect the concerns that have been brought forward. This really needs a lot better oversight.”

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