Disability, Discrimination, and Education in Texas: A Rant

This particular screed will be dedicated to K-12 and my experiences with my kid’s teachers, the school system, and its approach to disability. Mainly. Probably. With some references to Ru Paul’s Drag Race season 14 because it’s relevant, I promise.

I want to acknowledge my experiences and my kid’s experiences are colored by the unfair advantage of a crapton of privilege. This means that the system doesn’t work at all for kids whose parents don’t have the status, time, or language to demand their kids’ basic rights under the constitution. The DOJ has come after Texas for violating disabled’ kids’ rights in the form of anti-mask mandate laws, among others, but this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rights of disabled kids.

I have had to fight what feels like everyone, all the time, for my kid to get basic accommodations. It started in early elementary school. My kid has a condition called Hereditary Multiple Exostoses. It’s genetic and their dad has it, too. It basically causes them to develop bone growths randomly, all over their body, but particularly at major joints. Accommodations for this vary based on how debilitating it is. My kid has been fairly lucky so far, and the only accommodation they need is to be able to self-limit high-impact exercise because when it hurts like hell that means it’s stressing out joints that have these bone bumps in them.

Their first elementary school PE teacher would punish my kid for walking instead of running or sitting something out by not allowing them to do other activities that they enjoyed. This was the first of many times that I raised holy hell. I had to do it multiple years in a row, and I had to initiate 504 (disability accommodation) meetings before they were planned just to get this idiotic teacher to let my kid exercise in a way that wasn’t harmful to their joint development. My kid was also doing intensive martial arts at the same time, but this teacher assumed that they were just lazy and punished them. I literally sent the woman images of x-rays of the bones of people with HME to demonstrate how my kid’s joints likely looked. She didn’t care. Luckily, their 2nd grade teacher was a badass and watched out for them as much as she could.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that all children are entitled to a free, equal education under the law. Keep that in mind as we proceed.

Side rant via RuPaul’s Drag Race: This season there is a disabled person on the show and the producers have chosen to highlight their “struggles” and “bravery” when faced with barriers to competition from their disability. This violates their rights under the ADA, which also applies to employers and employees. It also demonstrates incredibly poor employment and advocacy practices to everyone who watches it. If you disclose your disability to your employer, THEY MUST PROVIDE YOU WITH ACCOMMODATIONS UNDER THE LAW. Regardless of what some reality show does. Just sayin’.

By the third grade, it was clear that my kid was very verbal and super bright, but was really struggling with learning to read. They kept falling farther and farther behind. In spite of their teachers saying it was unlikely that they were dyslexic, we got them tutoring and got them tested. Turns out they are moderately dyslexic and mildly dysgraphic. So more stuff got added to the 504. We also had some family traumas happen in 2nd and 3rd grade and found them a therapist, who diagnosed them with anxiety, which we also added to the 504. They were also bullied that year. More on that to come. Third grade sucked.

As we were working our way through my kid’s new diagnoses and accommodations it became clear that my kid’s ability to learn and thrive was very much impacted by the teacher, the classroom environment, and the school culture. For example, the school counselor decided that it was a great idea to work with the kids who were being bullied (rather than the kid doing the bullying because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) When we met with her for my kid’s 504 meeting, she asked us if our kid had sensory issues. I asked why, and was told that when she put her hand on my child’s back FOR NO GODDAMN REASON my kid responded by saying “please don’t touch me without permission.” So I told the counselor, no, my kid did not have sensory issues, they had feminist mom issues and that was an entirely appropriate response.

Fucking hell.

Elementary school #1 was dual language, which was awesome. Unbeknownst to us, however, dual language is a special kind of hell for dyslexic kids. So we decided to transfer them to a smaller school with a good disability program for the remainder of elementary school. Or so we thought.

My kid’s fantastic main teacher at school #2 left a couple of months into the school year (4th grade) and was replaced by an older woman who got in trouble for cursing at the kids the first week. It went downhill from there. She tried to force kids not to go to the bathroom when they needed to, so I wrote a strongly worded letter to the principal about that and some other issues with her teaching stule. Some of it got handled, but she continued to be very combative with my kid, whose anxiety skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the kid was finally in a reading program for dyslexia and was thriving and catching up on their reading and writing skills. We made it through the first semester, and then met with the teacher and administration to update my kid’s 504. The teacher made some of the right noises and seemed willing to follow the rules we had agreed to, but then tanked my kid’s behavioral scores on their report card, likely in retaliation for our taking our issues to the principal.

We realized that this woman had no boundaries, and since she was the only ELA teacher in the 4th grade my kid was trapped unless we transferred. I pulled the district into the conversation and asked her to justify giving my kid vastly inconsistent behavioral scores compared to their previous and other teachers, and why, if these were real, the counselor, vice-principal. or principal was not made aware that my kid was suddenly disruptive on a daily basis. Basically, she either had to admit to lying or to violating my kid’s rights by not reporting behavioral issues properly. She had no good answers. The school did nothing.

We pulled my kid out of that school the next week and moved them to the neighborhood school. It was fine, but a month later schools shut down due to COVID for the rest of the year.

What. A. Clusterfuck.

At the end of the year (4th grade), we found out that the Math teacher at school #2 was going to move to the 5th grade with her class, and she and my kid loved each other. So my kid went back to school #2 for a year of online learning. I STILL had to initiate meetings with the counselor because of various insanity, including an ELA teacher who was, while not evil and conniving like the crazy from the 4th grade, inflexible and unwilling to accommodate my kid’s disability. Nonetheless, they made it through a weird year and managed to stay connected with their fantastic primary teacher and friends through gaming nights and compassion, and a teaching style that worked for multiple types of learners. Also a special shout out to their Dyslexia teacher, who kicked ass at online teaching.

My kid did a lot of Zoom Minecraft with their friends that year and the following summer, and it turned out after they left, the 4th-grade teacher from hell had done stuff like grab kids by the collar, called them “pussies” repeatedly, and trashed the grades of any kids who complained. She’s still teaching at that school. I talked to a friend about it and she said her kid had been in a kindergarten (in Austin) where a teacher had hit a kid – they were suspended for two weeks and put back in the same classroom.

Texas does not care about children’s rights, health, or well-being. Full stop. There are many wonderful teachers and administrators who do, but the system is set up to protect adults and victimize children. The more marginalized the kid, the worse it is for them. So while the new insanity around the rights of trans kids and their families may come as a surprise to those outside the state, it’s par for the course. Texas is ranked 2nd in GDP, 38th in economic well-being, 33rd in education, and 49th in health for children. But sure, let’s pretend that trans kids are the problem instead of a deeply, deeply corrupt state government and insufficient oversight from the federal government.

My kid is now in middle school. And yes, I have spent copious hours chasing down counselors and 504 coordinators and talking to teachers to try and get my kid’s basic rights respected. They are much happier in middle school than elementary school (thank God), read fluently now, and have some fantastic teachers. They also have some asshole teachers who spout unscientific garbage and they have to spend way too much time prepping for a thoroughly discredited standardized test.

After being in the district for seven years, I know enough about who does what to make a concentrated stink to the right people at the right time. So far. But all of this centers around my privilege. I know how to wheedle and intimidate educators, and more importantly, I have the time to do so, as does my attorney husband. We make a pretty good team. Mostly because we are white, educated, and middle-class. If you don’t understand the system, don’t speak English, or don’t have time to advocate for your kid because you are just trying to survive, Texas will do nothing for you or your kids. I met one woman, an executive at a medium-sized local company, who literally hired an assistant to handle her kids’ disability needs with the school system. That is how much time, labor, and money it costs to get your kid’s “free and equal” education in Texas. It is neither free nor equal. Discrimination is systemic, rampant, and unchecked.

My kid was subjected to psychological abuse by their 4th-grade teacher and had an incident this year with a social studies teacher that was pretty messed up. (Follow-up rant about it here.) Nobody cares. But what really freaks me out is what is happening to all the kids who don’t have obnoxious, privileged parents. We see these occasional horror stories about forced hair cutting, or racially motivated arrests, or gender discrimination, but nobody is really looking. Nobody is doing what schools are supposed to be doing – protecting kids’ rights to an education free of abuse and discrimination. My best friend from childhood is a school administrator in California, and I swear I can hear her jaw hit the floor when I’ve described some of the shit we’ve encountered in the Texas school system.

There is no excuse for any of this. For targeting queer kids, for violating the rights of disabled kids, for destroying education with discredited testing, or for the systemic gender and racial discrimination in Texas schools. The measure of a society is how we treat our children, and Texas has failed.

It’s still trauma, Mary

I wrote quite a bit about a month ago about my tween’s experience with an abusive teacher at their school. While we finally got their 504 accommodations updated, and I’m guessing that teacher got a talking to, they continue to be unpleasant. They have continued to tell their students that they are emotionally underdeveloped because of their year (ostensibly slacking off and not dealing with any trauma or stress whatsoever with their perfectly stable and unstressed parents) off from in-person school due to Covid.

Recently this teacher decided to ask their students why they thought they were so emotionally impaired. (Who does that?) My kid raised their hand and said, we’re not impaired, we’re traumatized. This gave the teacher momentary pause, but then they responded by saying that all the students can’t be traumatized.

Really, Mary? In pandemonium? In a panorama? Two fucking years into a constantly mutating, killing people every day pandemic from hell? Just the fact that you said that indicates trauma. Our number one defense mechanism is usually denial. We ignore or minimize things that we can’t deal with. It’s the “This is fine” syndrome. And no shade to defense mechanisms — they help us function when everything is weird or horrible. We really do feel like everything is fine — until we don’t. Long-term trauma has long-term effects. We are less resilient. We have memory and sleep issues. If we have diagnoses like depression or anxiety, they can get harder to manage. When we inevitably encounter additional stressors or traumas, we don’t have the bandwidth to deal with them as well as we would during a time of relative peace and calm.

When my husband was hospitalized, people commented on how well I kept my shit together. And I did. Until I didn’t. We get this blast of hormones during emergencies that allow us to dissociate from the immediate horrors that we are dealing with and just function. But this is a temporary fix; afterward, you have to deal with all the emotions that your body helped you stuff down. I had an epic meltdown a few weeks after my husband got out of the hospital that was totally expected, and my resilience is still low while my anxiety is high. This is normal. But if you don’t understand the trajectory of trauma (and compounded trauma) you may think you are functioning because you are a superior life form and everyone else is weak. You are not and they are not.

This applies to EVERYONE. We are all living through collective trauma. Some people have been devastated by the effects of Covid, and some have just been inconvenienced, but nobody can ignore how terrifying and confusing and disruptive it has been.

However, Teacher of the Year, just because you haven’t experienced compounded, impossible-to-deny-trauma, doesn’t mean that your students haven’t. Kids have fewer defense mechanism tools in their psychological toolbox, even though they may seem super cool on the outside. Kids rely on adults for survival, so when we are unstable they often compensate by over-functioning or functioning for us. This does not make them extra great kids or mature beyond their years, or old souls. It makes them traumatized. Kids adapt because they have no choice. Adults have a choice. You can get therapy, scream into a pillow, journal, hike, whatever helps you get back into your body and your feelings, and then just fucking deal with the pain and fear and insecurity that comes up. Or you can blame your middle-schoolers for your own stress and make them feel like shit about themselves. Because apparently, that’s an option.

Once again I find myself saying to adults who parent or teach or take care of other people: unpack your shit. Your kids (and students) are an extremely convenient screen upon which to project your problems, issues, and flaws. Doing so is an abuse of power and you need to stop.

If you want to know more about how trauma passes through generations and how it plays out, I highly recommend learning about Family Systems Theory.

Why is white fragility?

Book Bans in Texas Suck

My husband and I caught the last segment on This American Life today, titled The Farce Awakens and I highly recommend it. It discusses how a Black children’s author found his books banned from school libraries in Katy, Texas. This horseshit is going on all over Texas and the south and it’s harmful and insane. But today I’m going to address specifically what the “concerned white moms” had to say in this segment because there is only so much I can yell at my radio.

Their argument was that exposing white children to the multitudes of microaggressions that black children face is harmful because it will make them feel guilty. (They also claim that there is no way that Black kids experience this much aggression. They do.) Let’s unpack this.

White guilt, of which I have had a good amount, is when you realize that you have been taking part in or advantage of oppressive social and institutional systems that make things easier for you and harder for Black people. I was raised believing that as a good Californian white liberal, I couldn’t be racist. It just wasn’t in my DNA. So when I said or did incredibly stupid things, I reacted with confusion and dismay. When I was forced to recognize the actual gulf between my experiences and my peers of color, I realized that I was full of shit and that I had no idea what they were going through. It was deeply uncomfortable and I did a lot of bullshit rationalizing of things to make me feel better about myself. Eventually, I realized that my sensitivity to terms like White Fragility WAS ACTUAL WHITE FRAGILITY. That was a start.

Why is this important? Because one of the most basic things you need to help your children learn while they develop is the difference between discomfort and danger. Guilt is uncomfortable, not dangerous. Shame is uncomfortable, not dangerous. Racist systems and racism are physically dangerous to short and long-term health and wellbeing.

So to the white moms in Katy who want to spare their children guilt for oppressions that they didn’t create (but are likely propagating because their parents can’t grow a pair of ovaries and woman up), I say GROW THE FUCK UP. It’s you who can’t deal with your guilt and discomfort. Your kids still have a chance to become more resilient, humble, and compassionate without a fuckton of therapy. You, my ladies, do not. You need to start learning to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and thoughts instead of trying to control everything your little angels come in contact with. Instead of banning books, get you a therapist and work on your shit.

In Transformative Learning Theory, we call this the Disorienting Dilemma. When a learner is faced with new knowledge that calls into question their sense of self or reality, it causes stress and discomfort. As educators, we can help them process it, but we can’t do it for them. Y’all need to take several seats and start thinking about whether or not you want your kids to be as easily disturbed as you are.

I want my kid to be more resilient than me. More ethical. More compassionate. More humble. I want them to outshine me in every way possible, not reflect back my own limited view of the world so I don’t have to have any uncomfortable feelings. I want the same for my students. If you can’t even imagine your child learning to empathize with a Black kid who gets picked on, harassed, and gaslit for being Black (or gay, or trans, or Asian, or Latinx, or Muslim, or disabled…), you are not living in reality and you are doing your children exactly zero favors. Learning to tolerate discomfort like guilt, anxiety, fear, and shame are the building blocks of adulthood and good-personhood. I really want the next generation to be less fucked up than mine, and y’all are not helping. Do better.

Teachers are not collateral damage.

I’ve read and listened to some utterly infuriating commentary this week from reputable media on sending kids back to physical classrooms. Here are some of the reasons:

  1. Kids are unlikely to get seriously ill.
  2. Rates of infection are not currently higher in school populations than the population at large.
  3. Screens are ruining their brains.
  4. Remote learning is imperfect.
  5. Kids are getting behind in their education.
  6. Kids need normalcy.

I will now call bullshit on these points.

  1. Yes, kids are less likely to get seriously ill with COVID but there are several things missing from this picture. Their teachers can get it and die or be permanently disabled. Several children have died. We don’t know how long (if at all) people are immune after recovery or what the long term effects are, including on kids. School staff can be in high risk categories and will be put at unacceptable risk. Kids can be silent spreaders. They can bring it home to you, and you can spread it to others before you become symptomatic. Dead or hospitalized parents are more traumatic that Zoom. Accidentally killing your grandparents–also more traumatic than Zoom school. Permanently destroying the health of their teachers and other school staff – No. Just no. They signed up to educate you kids, not die for your denial soaked facsimile of normalcy.
  2. When you talk about rates of infection you are essentially talking about acceptable losses. We do not have acceptable losses in the US. We have unacceptable, preventable losses. We have no plan, no tracking, no tracing. Very little testing for screening. What is an acceptable loss? A parent? A kindergarten teacher? A janitor? The principal? 4% of janitors? 20% of teachers? This is not a fucking land war. It’s a fast-spreading, unpredictable, and sometimes fatal or disabling disease that nobody should have to expose themselves to so we can all fake that everything is fine.
  3. Screens are not ruining kids brains. They never have. Kids are creative and social, and the internet provides myriad was for your kids to be creative and social that is developmentally appropriate for their age. Is it better than playing with kids outside? That’s an apples and oranges question. Would I love for my daughter to have a sleepover with her best friends who she hasn’t seen in more than half a year? Hell, yes. But not at the expense of lives of permanent lung or heart damage. Seriously. Get over the screen thing and educate yourself about age-appropriate games, education, and social media. Oh, and there is no diagnosis for game or screen addiction in non-adults. It’s a myth. Make some clear rules and stick to them. Don’t hobble what entertainment and social contact your kid has because you read the internet was going to rot their brains. It’s not. There are tons of websites for evaluating games and platforms for kids.
  4. Yes. Yes it is. Online learning has been a hot fucking mess for my daughter. It is not perfect. It is not normal. You know what else isn’t normal? A GLOBAL FUCKING PANDEMIC. Get the fuck over it. Zoom may not be your or your kid’s favorite thing but neither is killing Grandma. Just get the fuck over yourselves.
  5. Kids have amazing neuroplasticity. And you know what they can learn about right now, even if they are behind in useless standardized testing? The world around them. Social justice. The environment. Cooking. Art. Music. Programming. They will continue to grow and develop and learn when you stop freaking out about whether or not they will get into Harvard and just let them be kids.
  6. Kids need honesty way more than they need normalcy. They soak up stress and sense lies. There is no normalcy available to provide them with. They know stuff is weird and stressful and they pick up WAY MORE than you think they do. Talk to them about why everything is weird in a developmentally appropriate way. You can shelter them from the worst of the trash fire that is our country right now, but you can’t hide it. Be a grownup and figure out what you kids need to feel empowered and knowledgeable. They will surprise you.

Thus ends my current rage list. In summary STOP PRETENDING LIKE EVERYTHING IS FINE. EVERYTHING IS NOT FINE. Deal with reality as it is, not how you would like it to be, and show your kids the respect of valuing their lives and the lives of their teachers over your need to convince yourself that normal is just around the corner. It’s not.