Alumni and parents of former students at the Maryland School for the Deaf (MSD) issued an open letter recently calling for the removal of the school’s superintendent.
The letter, sent to MSD’s Board of Trustees, outlines a list of demands, the first being the ousting of Superintendent James Tucker with the inability to collect his pension. The letter claims Tucker has built a toxic culture in the school predicated on racism and elitism.
Robert Davila, President of the Board of Trustees said he and his fellow trustees are aware of issues present within the school and are taking actionable steps to make sure MSD Frederick becomes a more equitable and inclusive space.
ut those steps are not enough for alumni, who say they want to see Tucker’s removal from the school before his retirement next summer. Tucker has been the superintendent of MSD since 1992.
“We won’t stop until Tucker is fired. We won’t stop until that happens. He is planning on retiring next year, but we want to prevent that from happening. We want him to be truly fired,” Madison Craig said through an American Sign Language interpreter.
Craig graduated from MSD in 2014. She and others formed an organization called “Voices of MSD Survivors.” The group, which operates mostly through social media platforms like Facebook, has brought together alumni and parents who have shared stories of a toxic culture at the school, which, they say, Tucker fuels.
“MSD has long boasted as being one of the top schools for the Deaf across the country, but only elite white Deaf students have benefited from it,” the letter said. “We fear for the well-being and safety of current and future BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] and non-elite white Deaf students at MSD.”
Maryland School for the Deaf provides free, public education to deaf and hard-of-hearing residents in Maryland from birth until the age of 21. The school operates on two campuses, one in Columbia and one in Frederick. The high school campus is in Frederick, and most students who begin their education at Columbia’s campus eventually transfer to Frederick when they reach a certain age.
Stories shared on the “Voices of MSD Survivors” Facebook page make claims of bullying and racism by staff and coaches at the Frederick school.
There are also stories about a “class” divide between groups of students of the school. Alumni say students whose families have attended MSD and are generationally deaf — meaning their parents and most family members are deaf — get preferential treatment over students who were born into hearing families or whose families did not attend MSD.
Alumni also claim students whose parents or relatives work at MSD receive preferential treatment for educational and extracurricular opportunities.
Jarlene Villalobos, whose daughter attended MSD Frederick from 2008 to 2014, said students don’t get disciplined and receive preferential treatment because their relatives work at the school, marking a clear conflict of interest.
Parents and students have complained for years, Villalobos said, but have been met with silence from staff and administration.
Davila said the board is “unequivocally committed” to eliminating any racism or other issues that exist and outlined several actions the board is taking in response to the alumni and parent letter.
First, a Chief Diversity Officer for the school is being hired and will be in place by the start of the school year. Second, there are six workgroups currently working to create recommendations to transform MSD into a more equitable and inclusive school, Davila said.
These recommendations are supposed to be implemented when school begins this fall. One of the recommendations already put forth is to have training in diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural sensitivity for all members of the MSD community including students, families, school employees, and the Board of Trustees.
The third action the board is taking is the hiring of an independent consultant to identify systemic racism present within MSD and its policies and ways to fix any related issues that may be present.
Fourth, an online library of resources devoted to bringing attention to the Black Lives Matter movement is being developed and is expected to be launched soon.
There was no mention in Davila’s letter, however, of the Voices of MSD Survivor’s first demand regarding Tucker’s employment.
Board of Trustees Vice President Stephen Hlibok said the board is unable to discuss personnel matters but that a plan was recently announced to conduct a nationwide search for a new superintendent who will replace Tucker after he retires next year.
Regarding the claims against him, Tucker deferred comment to the Board of Trustees.
“Dr. Davila has asked me not to answer your questions for now as he said the Board is answering your questions,” Tucker said in an email.
Despite the board promising to take action, alumni don’t think it’s enough. The board’s action to address the school’s culture of discrimination has only become a priority now because of movements like Black Lives Matter, Rhyshem Bagley said.
Bagley graduated from MSD in 2014 and was a member of the student government in his final year. He says he approached Tucker about hiring more teachers of color but never saw any change.
“Seven years later and now MSD is finally taking the initiative because of things like Black Lives Matter. What? MSD never showed us that Black lives matter, we didn’t see any black teachers,” he said.
Additionally, the Board has still not responded to the original letter sent by the “Voices of MSD Survivors”.
Hlbock said state regulations regarding how the board meets and conducts their work, “presents a challenge for us to respond as swiftly as we would like.” He added that a subcommittee has been formed to respond to each individual or group who has sent a letter or submitted a complaint.
Villalobos said that regardless of whether or not the Board responds, the group will continue to push for change.
“So many people have had similar situations and so what does that say? It’s not only the students who have experienced the fighting and the bullying…that cumulative experience says a lot,” she said.