Category Archives: Civil Rights

Wrong Answer: Akron says yes to sports, no to in-person classes for students with disabilities

The Akron Beacon Journal’s front-page headline on Tuesday read, “Why are all these parents so happy? First day of school brings joy in Summit County.” Unfortunately, that was not the case in the county’s largest district, Akron Public Schools.

Initially, APS announced a blended program for the fall. Pre-school through third grade students would have been in the school buildings five days a week, with all other grades receiving a combination of in-person and (mostly) online instruction.

Older students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) were encouraged to attend in person more frequently than students without IEPs, while all students had the option of 100% online instruction.

That was the right model.

But then, in late July, the APS school board and administration reversed course and announced the first nine-week grading period of the school year would be entirely online for all students.

The best explanation I’ve been given is that with a large, urban district, many parents are essential workers. Fearing a second wave of COVID-19 would force schools to close only a few weeks into the first term, the board thought such a potential shift would make it difficult for these families to plan.

There are a few problems with this approach.

First of all, precisely because many APS parents are essential workers, many young students have no adults available to help them with online instruction when they need it. I’ve heard stories from teachers across the district of second and third grade students helping their younger siblings access their Chromebook lessons and also walking to school alone to pick up their free lunches.

Secondly, the regular flu season will kick in roughly the same time the second grading period begins, most likely making it harder to begin in-person instruction at that time.

This first grading period, before the regular flu arrives and while the weather remains mild enough for open windows and outdoor instruction, should have been used to help our most vulnerable students catch up.

Why? Because evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that remote-only learning is detrimental to students with special educational needs (see “Remote Learning Doesn’t Support Special Education Learners“).

That is why my daughter’s father and I have hired a tutor, currently at our own expense, to meet with 8-year-old Lyra, who has Down syndrome, and other students in an outdoor classroom in our yard five mornings a week.

Furthermore, many teachers have expressed a willingness to hold in-person instruction in the school buildings with the children who most need it, including some who have worked with Lyra.

But the school board and district administrators will not budge and have repeatedly denied the request for Lyra and other students with disabilities to be taught in the buildings.

Safety first!

Then, in a special meeting called last Tuesday, the school board reversed another prior decision. This time one that had cancelled all contact sports for the fall term. Now, all sport are allowed to proceed. Why? Because parents demanded it.

According to APS board member Derrick Hall, whom I both voted for and wrote to about the need for children with disabilities to receive in-person instruction this fall, the board changed course on sports because, “We had a very sort of loud and active parental component to this. There were multiple petitions that went around that had several thousand signatures,” Hall said.

He further elaborated, “I think that being a member of a community elected board, it’s important to sort of take [the] pulse and sort of notice when you have that kind of activism going on around an issue.”

Hmm. So somehow athletes at who are running, tackling, tagging, sliding to bases and yelling can remain safe in a global pandemic but kids with IEPs quietly receiving in-person instruction in mostly empty school buildings cannot?

I call foul.

The district’s policy openly flouts the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that in July a federal judge said has not in any way been watered down due to COVID. He specifically stated that students with IEPs requiring in-person instruction must receive in-person instruction, so long as it can be done safely.

While I question the safety of contact sports in our K-12 schools— even major league teams using all the protective measures money can buy have had COVID outbreaks — I don’t begrudge the parents who want their kids to play.

But educating our students, particularly those with disabilities, should always be the school district’s No. 1 priority. Instead, bending to loud pressure, the board has prioritized playing games over educating minds.

Let me be clear: There is no federal law that says sports must carry on, but there is one that says in-person instruction, when part of an IEP, must. Clearly, our most vulnerable students don’t all have parents who can mount a squeaky-oil campaign to force our school board into compliance with federal law.

But a small group of attorneys can.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 6, 2020.

Changing racial justice starts inside you, white America

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

— From “The Fellowship of the Ring,” J.R.R. Tolkien

The same day Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi, author Eudora Welty wrote a prescient short story from the perspective of the killer. Welty’s insight into the mind of the white supremacist, who waited near the Black civil rights activist’s home before shooting him in the back, was not the product of supernatural powers.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve lived here all my life. I know the kind of mind that did this,’ ” Welty said in a 1972 interview. Sadly, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” remains as insightful as when it was written in 1963.

Two weeks ago, I wrote of the need to discuss racism in America. And, predictably, I received a handful of letters spewing hackneyed racist tropes.

However, I received far more letters asking for resources to better understand America’s history of slavery and its legacy in institutionalized, systemic racism.

As I wrote before, getting to know people who are different in any way — including color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or ability — is one of the best ways to dissipate the sense of otherness and recognize the humanity of all people.

But it is not the job of Black folks to teach white folks to become “woke” and understand what Black Americans have lived with all their lives, generation after generation for 401 years.

To my earnest readers, I sent a list of articles, movies, interviews, books and podcasts to better understand what, as white Americans, we often don’t see because it is not a part of our experience.

Of course, as soon as I pressed “send,” I immediately thought of things I’d forgotten to include. The truth is finding fact-based, quality sources on how and why racism in America remains an enduring contradiction to our Constitution, and the fallacy that we live in a meritocracy, is not hard.

Here is a small set of recommendations:

Shortly after it was published in 1996, I read Leon Dash’s book “Rosa Lee: A Generational Tale of Poverty and Survival in Urban America.” Derived from his Pulitzer Prize-winning, eight-part series for the Washington Post, Dash spent three years interviewing Rosa Lee Cunningham and her family.

Dash’s extensive research on D.C.’s urban underclass, including chapters on the history and sociology of African American sharecroppers in the South after the Civil War and the later Great Migration to the North, was my first exposure to the depth of the chasm under the whitewashed education I received.

Zora Neale Hurston, American author, anthropologist and filmmaker. Lived 1891-1960.

I had read novels, including “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, both of which paint compelling and tragic pictures of 20th century life for Black Americans. But until “Rosa Lee” I’d not read nonfiction accounts informed by academic research.

I’ve since tried to fill the void in my education on a number of topics. And yet, as my grandma often told me, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.

The 2016 documentary, “The 13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay, recounts how time and again when one system of racial suppression is eliminated in America, another quickly takes its place. Several notable scholars and journalists are interviewed in the film, which I recommend everyone watch, no matter how much or how little you know about this history.

For narrative film, there is no director with more clarion ability to represent many aspects of Black lives and history than Spike Lee. “Do the Right Thing” is particularly topical right now, three decades after it was released, for the Black anger it accurately depicts like no movie before.

For a thorough recounting of the myriad ways our government policies have intentionally disadvantaged Black Americans, read MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, “The Case for Reparations.”

The podcast “Code Switch” and its newsletter provide black perspectives on current affairs. So does journalist Roxane Gay. And the discussions with mostly Black guests on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, who is biracial, provide insights not found elsewhere.

For those willing to read books, consider “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, “Letter to My Son” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, “The Sun Does Shine” by Anthony Ray Hinton, “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr.’s essential work, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

This month, I had the honor to meet the mother of the young black man who recently, while waiting at a bus stop, was harassed by an older white man with a shotgun. She told me some of her white friends said, “I can’t believe that happened to James, we know him!”

That disbelief is the product of white privilege.

White mothers, no matter how rich or poor, do not fear when their sons leave the house: What if he’s pulled over by the police? Or hunted down by white supremacists in a pickup? Or harassed at a bus stop by a man with a shotgun?

Over the centuries, we have changed laws regarding race without changing our country’s bone-deep racial caste system. For that, we need to change hearts and minds. It starts with you.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 5, 2020.