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Former students, their parents say Maryland School for the Deaf allowed racist, elitist culture; call for overhaul

A group called Maryland School for the Deaf Survivors protested in late August in Annapolis, calling for the school's superintendent, James E. Tucker, to be terminated.
A group called Maryland School for the Deaf Survivors protested in late August in Annapolis, calling for the school's superintendent, James E. Tucker, to be terminated. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Paula Hare was the only Black player at the Maryland School for the Deaf’s summer volleyball camp in 2014 when she was approached by the team captain, who wanted her permission to refer to her using a racial slur.

“I was her favorite, so I allowed her to use that word. Of course, deep inside I was hurt, yet I don’t know what to do since I’m just a freshman ...,” Hare said. “She was so happy and kept saying ’that’s my n---- over there!’”

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She said other players began using the word to describe her as well. The coach witnessed and ignored the behavior, she said.

“It turned my life upside down,” she wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.

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Hare, from Baltimore, graduated three years ago from the public school but recently joined other alumni, as well as parents of former students in alleging that the Maryland School for the Deaf has tolerated a racist, elitist culture. They have called for the immediate dismissal of superintendent James Tucker, a complete overhaul of leadership and more equitable treatment of students.

For 28 years, Tucker has led the school, which has campuses in Frederick and Columbia. Its board announced last month that Tucker would retire Friday, well before his expected retirement in 2021.

The group of alumni and parents, calling themselves MSD Survivors, described an insular culture and draconian discipline such as a room where students were left in the dark. School leaders say the practice already has been discontinued.

Tucker and a representative of the board did not address other allegations, except to ask individuals with complaints to contact the board. Officials say the school “is addressing all concerns and allegations” and taking “initiatives to address systemic racism” such as hiring a diversity officer.

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Black students were not the only ones treated unfairly, former students said. The school’s elite, the group says, are students whose parents or grandparents attended Gallaudet University, the school for deaf students in Washington, D.C.; alumni without that pedigree said they felt as though they were second-class citizens.

The group has gathered about 900 signatures on a petition listing its demands. About 14 people gathered for a protest last week in front of the House of Delegates office building in Annapolis. They carried signs calling for Tucker’s dismissal.

While many of the protesters are alumni and parents of alumni, they said issues continue today.

Tucker said the Maryland School for Deaf under his leadership has raised standards, adopted the statewide public school standards, and is “considered by many a flagship school in the field of deaf education.”

The board chair was unavailable, but the board’s vice president Stephen Hlibok issued a statement detailing several actions the board is taking.

Hlibok said all the students “are cherished and embraced.”

As of last spring, people of color represented 40% of the school’s enrollment, and eight of 19 student members of the school’s honor society were people of color, he said.

Rhyshem Bagley, who graduated in 2014, said students from “elite” families with Gallaudet connections were treated well and given privileges that weren’t afforded to others. Other students, for instance, were placed in dorms farther from the center of campus so they had a longer walk to the cafeteria or classes, he said. The school denies that contention.

Speaking through an interpreter, Bagley said he was assigned to low-level classes while preferred students were placed in higher level classes.

He said he took pre-Algebra twice, even though he had passed the course the first time and raised objections when he was placed in it the next year.

Bagley, who is Black and lives in Landover, said he was involved in student government and went to the administration asking that they begin a discussion about racism.

“There was a lot of racism that I felt needed to be addressed,” he said. “I was told that the issue at the time was not valid.”

In response to such criticisms, Tucker said the school serves a wide range of students; about 20% have additional disabilities, including autism. Every student has an individualized education plan that parents sign off on, he said.

Students have sometimes not learned American Sign Language until they arrive at the school, he said.

“They often come to MSD many years behind in academic skills and struggle with their identities...,” he said. “MSD faculty and staff have high expectations for all students and work hard to prepare students for the ever-changing and competitive world after their graduation.”

Students graduate with either a certificate of attendance or a regular diploma.

Catrina Register, who is white and lives in Pennsylvania, said through an interpreter that when she attended the school several years ago it used what was called a “black room” for disciplining students. Students were put in the room, and the light is turned off.

“It could be a minute or two, or it could be for an hour,” Register said. “My perspective is that is mental abuse.”

Register said the room was used mostly for Black students when she was there. She graduated four years ago and is now a mother of deaf children.

Hlibok said he was told the room was a “time out” room and the practice was discontinued a number of years ago.

Register said she has started to speak out now because she wants her children to have opportunities she did not.

“The school practices racism and elitism. That elite perspective is throughout what they do,” she said.

Jarlene Villalobos, the parent of a former student, said she pulled her child out of the school when she was in the 11th grade and moved out of state because of the issues at the school.

She said Tucker is not the only person who should resign; the staff and board of trustees should turn over as well.

“Many parents are fighting for that,” said Villalobos, who now lives in Olathe, Kansas.

But the experiences of the MSD Survivors group are not shared by all parents and students.

“We have had nothing but positive experiences at the school,” said Maria Wells, whose African American son just graduated. “That is a sensitive time for kids when they are figuring out their identity. ... I have always felt supported in the school. I know this was an amazing place for him to be.”

Wells said she does not dispute the experiences of other Black students, but expressed surprise at their concerns.

The School for the Deaf, founded in 1868, is a Maryland public school. Its trustees are appointed to the board by the governor to six-year terms. At least six of the trustees must be deaf.

The board issued a statement saying the administration and staff are working “on initiatives to address systemic racism at MSD, like many other academic institutions.”

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The board is in the process of hiring a consultant to evaluate school policies. A work group has formed to make the school “more equitable and inclusive” and the search for a chief diversity officer is under way and an individual is expected to be chosen by Oct. 1.

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But the demands of the MSD Survivors go further, calling for the firing of faculty who have more than five complaints against them, the elimination of academic tracking that prevents qualified students from participating in Advanced Placement and honors classes, and less emphasis on athletics. They would like a third party not connected to the Governor’s Office of Deaf and Hard of Hearing or the current trustees to do the first screening of candidates for the next superintendent.

Tucker was the first deaf superintendent to be hired in the history of the institution. He came as a 33-year-old who had graduated from Gallaudet and had returned to teach English.

In the late 1980s, Gallaudet students who wanted a deaf superintendent demonstrated, temporarily shutting down the university. Tucker was one of six adults who directed the protest behind the scenes, according to an article in The Sun at the time of his hiring.

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