Protesting Disaster

ASDB staff and students protest, demand resignation of superintendent, board president amid environment of fear and retaliation

Right outside the gates of the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, Juliana Apfel sits holding a list of demands written in marker on a long piece of cardboard so that anyone passing by the Speedway Boulevard school understands why they've protested on and off the past two weeks.

"I'm the voice of the students," the student goverment president wrote in my reporters notebook, as her fellow students passed out signs to hold and tape along the school's large steel fence.

Monday, April 29, was different than the previous student-driven protests.

That list on the cardboard Apfel is holding - fire current ASDB Superintendent Robert Hill; remove ASDB board chairman Bern Jones; bring back agriculture teacher Richard Layton; bring back ASDB executive director and principal Nancy Amann; make 51 percent of ASDB's board of directors people who are deaf; and no retaliation against those who've participated in protests.

Retaliation is a word that comes up often when you talk with people associated with the school — staffers, teachers and parents. Which is why the protest that took place Monday was a big deal, although little fanfare when a group of about 15 staffers left the school's property to join the students for the first time.

Ten of those staffers stood along Speedway Boulevard holding a sign that read, "We Support Our ASDB Students." ASDB staffer Jessica Boof Sizemore, who worked as administrative assistant to Amann, the principal and executive director put on administrative leave by superintendent Hill in mid-February, says staffers worry about retaliation.

That is obvious on Saturday, April 27, when I met with about eight ASDB staffers and parents outside a coffeehouse. It's clear that no one wants to be identified for different reasons, but mostly it's because they say there is a tendency for people who work for the ASDB to be placed on administrative leave without reason.

"You go to work one morning and your coworker isn't there. You find out they've been put on leave, but you don't know why. No one knows why. You begin to wonder when you're going to be next. That's the kind of fear most of us work under," someone says.

Sizemore, however, feels it's time to come forward. As someone who is hearing, but is also fluent in ASL as part of her job at the ASDB, she finds it interesting that out of three people she knows including herself that have been vocal, two have been targeted and those two are deaf.

Sizemore says she's willing to come forward, since her name is already on a letter in support of her boss and submitted to the ASDB board. The fact that her deaf colleagues in particular are being targeted, however, is troubling to her.

Amann, whom the teachers describe as a popular deaf administrator and educator, hired Richard Layton to put together an agriculture education program. The students responded to the program, which focused on growing food, raising animals and learning about nutrition and where food comes from. Layton was a particularly popular teacher too, because he signed.

According to those at the coffeehouse meeting, Amann was never told why she was put on leave and she filed an internal grievance, as well as with the Arizona Department of Civil Rights.

But it's difficult to know if the current slate of the ASDB board took Amann's grievance seriously, as well as complaints and the protests. Remaining members are serving under expired terms and the seats are all governor-appointed.

There are issues with the meetings, which are supposed to happen every two months. This past year, the staffers say they have only met three times since last June; at a special meeting on April 9 the board voted 4-3 to not renew Amann's contract - the only top level administrator who happens to be deaf. There was a regularly scheduled meeting set for April 25, but was canceled due to lack of quorum.

It wasn't until the April 9 special meeting that Hill presented a 16-page report to the board addressing Amann, but the board only received the report the previous day.

Amann, Sizemore says, has been with the school for 14 years, starting as a teacher and administrator for the birth to three program, and eventually became principal of the deaf section of the school and executive director of the entire program.

Calls to the school asking for comment, as well as to the governor's office were not returned by press time. However, there was a special board meeting on Tuesday, April 30 in the governor's conference room in Phoenix. Staffers say the location and time of the meeting only further fuels concerns the board remains oblivious.

"At 1 p.m.? This isn't a meeting that's being held in hopes that people will show up. If they wanted to make sure we had access to the board and to the meetings, they wouldn't have them at 1 p.m.," a parent told the Weekly.

But Apfel says she and other students plan to attend, and hope to get across the need for Hill and Jones to resign.

One point discussed by staffers with the Weekly, is a perceived conflict that Hill and Jones run a business together called TASK12 that administers the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment. The cost is $310 for each test and in Tucson, the tests are administered at the ASDB. Staffers who met with the Weekly claim that staff is used to prepare for those meetings and schools resources are used, such as paper and copies made at the campus copy center.

"Jones is also the board member who nominated Hill to be superintendent," a staffer told the Weekly.

Furthering the odd feel on campus is that the administration building has been on lock-down all month. Staffers say they were told it was a security concern, yet, they point out, the elementary and high school building are open. The other issue is that on the Tucson campus there remain several dorm buildings condemned by the Tucson Fire Marshall. Rather than finish restoration of the buildings, the ASDB hired someone 24/7 to feel the walls and doors of the buildings to check for potential fire.

There's also a lack of truth that bothers students like Apfel. She was in Layton's class and was raising a pig to enter into the Pima County Fair. When Layton was fired and Hill ended the program, the pigs were taken away early and she wasn't able to enter her pig in the fair. In an email Hill sent on April 22 to staff, he contends it was Layton who chose to send the pigs away early.

"Richard (Layton) was the biggest benefit for the students. He can sign and you can have direct communication with him. You can't beat that," Apfel says.

"Maybe Robert Hill has issues with deaf people."

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