We should all be concerned by recent allegations of racism and ableism in the Salt Lake City School District.
Much remains to be seen, but Jeanetta Williams of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate, writing that the board, as well as some administrators, are guilty of racial discrimination and creating a hostile work environment for the district’s Black employees, of which the new superintendent, Timothy Gadson, is the most visible.
She further alleges that the district itself has been negligent in legally required Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings, a key part of the special education process in which families and educators must gather annually to review the needs and goals of students with disabilities. Of course, we must wait and see what comes of any investigation. As a parent, a longtime activist within the district and a candidate for the school board, the question I find myself asking is, what else don’t we hear about?
I don’t say that to malign the brilliant work of our educators. Our district has great strengths, but every American school district continues to struggle with American racism. Every school district also struggles to live up to the justice and equity for students with disabilities aspired to by Congress through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which created the IEP in its first iteration in 1975.
We live in a moment where every school system is taking a hard look at itself. That must include rethinking the process by which individual stories are brought into focus at the district level. If the inputs elected officials are receiving from their public aren’t fed to them in an equity-driven process, our values end up compromised by faulty conceptual models.
As a parent who has often volunteered to help other parents to navigate the system in the capacity of an advocate, which has included learning more about their rights under special education laws, I believe that changing the avenues through which complaints are processed might be the biggest single step we could take toward addressing inequity in our district.
Our district has stumbled before at the intersection of disability and race. We continue to rely heavily on low-wage workers to support our most vulnerable students, from those in medically fragile classrooms to behavior support units. Behind this latest wave of allegations, I see a pattern where the district usually responds quickest to the squeakiest wheels – those with existing privilege and understanding of how the system works, who in the administrative chain they need to cajole and time and energy to spare.
What we need is a district ombudsperson, an official employed directly by the board to investigate IEP non-compliance, G-18s, 19s, and 20s (which is district jargon for complaints on the lines of discrimination, retaliation and bullying) and any other situation in which our children and our families find themselves lost in the system’s failures.
This idea was first proposed by the brilliant late board president Heather Bennett. A district ombudsperson would be responsible only to the public and to the board itself, not to district officials or principals. Their duty to the public would be to help our city’s families, who speak dozens of languages and represent every socioeconomic experience, to navigate the educational system when it’s failing for their children. Simply put, they would help us all to hear the individual voices we usually don’t hear until they become patterns of institutional failure.
Ashley Anderson is a parent and arts educator who is running to represent Precinct 3 on the Salt Lake City School Board.