Protesters crowded the sidewalk in front of the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind for the second day in a row Thursday.
The demonstration was led by a former school employee Debra Metzger, who said faculty at FSDB lacked the proficient American Sign Language skills necessary to work with deaf students.
Metzger said she started working in the FSDB dorm last fall after moving to St. Augustine to retire. She previously worked 25 years at the Rochester School for the Deaf in New York and wanted to continue helping deaf students in her new community.
“It’s important [for] deaf kids to have deaf role models working with them,” Metzger said.
But shortly after being hired, Metzger said she was shocked by a lack of ASL communication between faculty and deaf children.
“Students would come up to me and share their frustrations about hearing [staff] with lack of ASL,” Metzger said. “I also had my frustrations … so I decided to quit after just two months of working there so I could speak up for our deaf kids and deaf community.”
On Wednesday, that plan went into action as Metzger stood in front of the school to protest for the first time. It wasn’t long before many concerned parents and frustrated deaf students joined. By Thursday, a demonstration of one turned into a demonstration of 33.
FSDB is recognized as one of the nation’s top schools of its kind, with more than 600 Pre-K to K-12 students and nearly 400 infants, toddlers, and families through its parent services department.
The 130-year-old campus is sprawled over 83 acres and provides tuition-free schooling to eligible students.
According to the FSDB Staff ASL Program Policy, prospective faculty members must meet the standards of the Sign Language Proficiency Interview Rating Scale. ASL skill level standards differ depending on the position.
The policy states that staff lacking sufficient ASL skill levels for their position must take the SLPI within 60 days of job entry dates unless signing a statement indicating a lack of ASL skills. Should they sign this statement, they are required to participate in FSDB-supported ASL skill development activities and take the SLPI within two years of hire.
Faculty are expected to meet standards within four years of their job entry date.
“We expect personnel who work with deaf and hard of hearing students to not only achieve, but also to surpass the ASL proficiency level required for their position,” said Nancy Bloch, the executive director of communications and public relations at FSDB. “School policies in this regard and related to the above are under continuous review and updated on a regular basis.”
But parents at the protest shared a different opinion.
“Currently, we cannot get the staff [and] faculty to sign at all times on campus,” said parent Shae Crook. “Many are not proficient in sign, whether it be ASL or not.”
Crook, 38, said she moved with her three deaf children to St. Augustine two summers ago based on FSDB’s positive reputation.
But Crook said her two oldest children, Cullen and Paisley, haven’t made any significant progress with their education at FSDB.
“Since coming here, Cullen has fluctuated and Paisley has hit a stall,” Crook said.
She’s also worried her youngest child, a kindergartner at a third-grade reading level, might backslide at the school.
Like several participants at the rally, Crook said the goal was to raise awareness and gather support for the deaf students and community.
Tammy Pellicer, 43, said she was representing the voice of her two deaf children and FSDB alumni.
Pellicer said she believes the school hires people despite a lack of proficient ASL skills and added that the elementary school only has one deaf teacher.
“What if there [is] an emergency and no one understands what [the] kids [are] trying [to] say?” Pellicer said.
She said her children often complain about staff with inadequate ASL skills.
“Some hearing teachers [are] slow or [have] lousy signs,” Pellicer said. “My kids [are] frustrated and struggling at school because [they] don’t understand what they said.”
According to Bloch, FSDB is planning on integrating ASL/English bilingual and cultural education to encourage maximum communication and learning potential for students. The approach would teach students ASL with English in print.
While Crook expressed excitement at this future integration, she shared concern, as well.
“We are very excited about that,” Crook said. “But we need to ensure that it becomes enforced.”
In the meantime, protesters plan on holding demonstrations twice a day throughout the school week.
“Deaf kids’ futures [are] very important; critical, especially from age 0 to 5 years old,” Metzger said.
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