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.
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.