What Happens to Vulnerable Students When Teachers Strike?
For special education students of color, the upheaval hits especially hard
When the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to relight the match of protest last month, teachers across the nation also caught flame. Denver. West Virginia. Oakland, Calif. In the past year, teacher strikes have reemerged as an effective tool to answer the long-standing demands of frustrated educators who need better pay, improved facilities, and more resources for high-need schools. During these strikes, much of the attention has been given to the most visible people in our schools: teachers, parents, and vocal and well-performing students. However, working as a special education paraprofessional for a public elementary school in South Los Angeles, I know that students of color, particularly those with disabilities, hardly ever get consideration when major decisions like these are made.
During the LAUSD strike, just a third of the district's 600,000 students showed up to school on the strike's first day. Students and families were forced to find all sorts of creative ways to facilitate learning, including taking advantage of free entry to museums and zoos, teaching classes at home, or rallying with teachers.
For low-income students and students with disabilities at high-need schools, many of those options were not feasible. Instead, non-credentialed school staff such as myself—along with sanitation workers, office personnel, and yard and recreational support—worked tirelessly to keep schools running for students in attendance. I saw the strike's impact on the day-to-day experience of these students in high-need schools, even well after the strike has ended. Though the strike produced historic wins for teachers, it did not come without significant drawbacks for students whose voices have been historically suppressed in our schools: students of color, particularly black boys, with disabilities.
On January 14, the first day of the strike, droves of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders noisily filled our school's auditorium for programming. This was standard protocol at many schools, but it was nearly impossible for our administrator to redirect the children’s attention to schoolwork amidst the mass confusion that both students and staff were experiencing. One student with whom I work closely, a boisterous and excitable 11-year-old black boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, paced up and down the auditorium floor. As he greeted friends and danced to pass time, a school administrator ferociously snapped at him to leave the auditorium.
Stunned, the student (along with some nervous staff like me) waited for clarification. Where would he go? All classrooms serving this age group at our school remained locked during the strike. It was raining outside. The school administrator told him he could keep himself occupied by walking around the school.
It was clear to me that the administrator, overwhelmed and with little support, made an exceptionally bad call. The student's entire grade level was inside the auditorium with the only available credentialed staff. But what some might excuse as a temporary lapse in judgment was unfortunately all too common during the strike for students like him.
Although most administrators meant well, a general lack of understanding about the biased ways schools see children of color and students with disabilities created a hostile space for many children during the strike. Since resources were more scarce than usual during the strike, students in our school who were already considered "defiant" were now being chastised for little more than showing up. Many of their key advocates—the teachers who are more skilled in supporting their needs—were on the picket lines.
I watched as students were sent home for arbitrary and vague reasons or assigned mandatory escorts to the bathroom and class. In one case, the police were even called in to deal with a classroom infraction for a kindergarten student. The encounter left a young black boy screaming and crying in our school halls.
I am proud to have witnessed the work of teachers during the Los Angeles strike. However, I cannot be proud of the way many of our schools resort to punishing and policing our students, particularly disabled children of color. Although the strike is over for my city, we have no way of knowing the far-reaching effects it will have on students' sense of safety and trust in their schools. So other school districts contemplating these types of strikes must ask: Are our strides coming at the expense of our most marginalized students?
There is no perfect solution, but there are a few ways schools can better prepare for demonstrations involving teachers. Teachers must collectively consider the broader impact of leaving disadvantaged students in classrooms without them and strategize how they can work with others inside their school to protect students. Schools can proactively train administration along with other school staff, such as assistants and recreational providers, on how they may unconsciously pathologize disability and nonwhiteness. Teachers and teachers’ unions can also train parents, particularly those in vulnerable and under-resourced areas, to know their rights and ensure their children are not mistreated or neglected. And once strikes are over, teachers and other school staff can intentionally tend to students whose needs might have been overlooked.
Let us not forget that teacher strikes have a greater potential to harm children who are people of color, poor, and live with a disability.
Vol. 38, Issue 24, Page 19Published in Print: March 6, 2019, as The Overlooked Consequences of a Teacher Strike