Student protests over the hiring of a white hearing superintendent have roiled a school for the deaf that serves mostly Black and Hispanic students in the Atlanta area and have focused attention on whether school leaders should better reflect the identities 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 roughly 180 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, about 80 percent of whom are Black and Hispanic.
Students protested the hiring, accusing the school and the Education Department of racism and disability-based discrimination against the deaf community known as audism. They noted that the school’s top leadership included no people of color or deaf people.
Two weeks later, the superintendent, Lisa Buckner, who has 22 years of experience as a teacher and administrator of deaf students and had most recently worked at the Education Department, resigned. The school has appointed an interim superintendent, who is also a white hearing woman, and is now searching for 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. In that protest, which was viewed as a landmark moment for deaf people, students successfully pushed for the university’s first deaf president and drew attention to longstanding challenges faced by deaf people.
Activism since then, including a controversy that saw two officials at Gallaudet resign in 2020 while saying the school discriminated against Black deaf people in hiring and promotions, has increasingly evoked both race and disability. Three decades after the original Gallaudet protest, many in the deaf community say they are still fighting some of the same battles.
The protests in Atlanta followed the hiring of Ms. Buckner in September. She replaced the 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 every applicant who met minimum qualifications for the position. Meghan Frick, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education, said it “stands opposed to audism and other forms of prejudice.” She described Ms. Buckner as “an educational leader” who was “proficient” in American Sign Language, or A.S.L.
But current and former staff members say deaf employees and people of color were overlooked for promotions, and both staff and students have complained that Ms. Buckner’s knowledge of A.S.L. was poor. In the original job posting, sign language fluency was listed as a preferred, not required, skill.
Many student protesters felt like the new superintendent could not understand them and looked down on them, according to Trinity Arreola, 18, a protest leader.
“It’s like we’re going backward,” Ms. Arreola, a senior and the president of the Latino Student Union, said. “It’s like we’re going back to a time where deaf people were thought of as limited and incapable.”
The school’s top leadership consists of white hearing women filling the roles of superintendent and assistant principal. In the 2020-21 school year, 79 percent of teachers were white and 60 percent of teachers were hearing, according to Education Department data. Ms. Buckner declined to answer questions about her decision to resign or complaints from students and staff.
Since May, at least 12 other employees have quit the school. Many of those who quit were deaf, people of color, or both, according to one former agriculture teacher, Emily Friedberg, 50, who is white and deaf.
After 12 years working at the school, she said, she was pushed to quit in June — months before she found out who the new superintendent was — because of what she described as a “hostile” environment driven by white hearing leadership that she said “bullied” deaf 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 reach out to the Education Department leadership.
Though the Gallaudet protest paved the way for new education and employment opportunities for the deaf, schools for the deaf are still mostly led by hearing people and are seldom led by people of color who are deaf.
Of the 73 school leadership positions for 71 statewide K-12 schools for the deaf across the country, 46 are held by hearing people, according to Tawny Holmes Hlibok, a professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet. Among the 27 deaf school leaders — a number that she said has more than doubled from seven years ago — three are people of color.
Growing research shows that students perform better in school if they have role models who reflect their background.
“I notice that when I talk to deaf children at a school without a deaf leader and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they often limit themselves,” Professor Hlibok said, adding, “When I ask them if they want to be a teacher or lawyer or nurse, they say they can’t because that job is for a hearing person.”
A 2019 report by the National Deaf Center found that 44.8 percent of Black deaf people and 43.6 percent of deaf Native Americans are in the labor force, compared with 59 percent of white deaf people.
Along with a lack of role models, many deaf students, particularly deaf students of color, are not adequately prepared for college because of a lack of early language support services and a lack of certified educational interpreters in public schools, said Laurene E. Simms, interim chief bilingual officer at Gallaudet.
Black deaf students obtain undergraduate, master’s or Ph.D. degrees at about half the rate of Black hearing students, and half the rate of white deaf students, according to another 2019 report by the National Deaf Center.
The loss of so many people of color on the Atlanta school’s staff has made many students feel 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, home lives and friends, but now “students don’t feel like there’s anyone they can open up to,” she said.
“When I try to open up to someone who hasn’t had the same experiences,” she said, “I’m not always sure if I can trust them, and I feel a lot of self-doubt.” She said that sometimes it seemed that white staff treated students differently based on their skin color.
More broadly, activists in recent years have complained about the “whitewashing of disability,” or how much it is largely seen through a white lens, despite statistics that show Black people are more likely to have a disability.
For example, media portrayals of those with disabilities and leadership of disability organizations skew white, according to Vilissa Thompson, a Black disabled activist who created the hashtag #DisabilitySoWhite on Twitter to draw attention to the issue.
Recently, Netflix’s “Deaf U” reality series focusing 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.
Those broader issues raised the stakes at places like the Atlanta school.
Ms. Frick said the Georgia Department of Education was working to create leadership pathways for teachers and school staff.
Mr. Serrano, the previous superintendent, declined to comment on his experience with the Education Department, but he wrote in an email that he hoped the department would conduct an equitable and inclusive search for the next superintendent.
“It is my firm belief that students want and need a leader who ‘looks like them’ and who shares their experiences as deaf and hard of hearing individuals,” he wrote.