The Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech has gained a global reputation as a leader in deaf education.
Founded in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1867 as the Clark School for the Deaf, it was the first school in the country to teach oralism, a controversial philosophy that focused on teaching speech and lip-reading to children who are deaf or hard of hearing, as opposed to teaching them sign language.
More recently, another controversy has surrounded the Clarke School, where former students say they suffered severe emotional and physical abuse dating back decades.
Dusty Christensen is a reporter with The Daily Hampshire Gazette, and wrote about the recent revelations.
Kari Njiiri, NEPR: You spoke with a number of people who say they were traumatized by their experiences at the Clarke School. What was the nature of the abuse, and how far back do the allegations go?
Dusty Christensen, The Daily Hampshire Gazette: The allegations that we spoke to alumni about date back to the '50s, '60s and '70s. The abuse that those alumni say they faced spans a wide range of abuse, from emotional abuse, to physical abuse — having their hands hit with hairbrushes if they signed, or even gestured, when speaking.
One student recounted being punched in the face and strangled on a ping pong table. Another student recalls, as a five-year-old, being put in a dark basement with no explanation at a time when she didn't have the communication skills to even ask why.
What prompted the abuse?
It's unclear. I know that for a lot of the physical abuse, some of these alumni do have questions themselves about why. When it comes specifically to some of the cruelty alumni say they faced when signing or gesturing, those alumni say it had to do with Clarke's oralist tradition, and their strict prohibition on using American Sign Language, or even gestures, at the school.
The idea at the time, I believe, was that they wanted students to be practicing lip-reading and oral speech, and thought that if they discourage sign language entirely, those students would simply focus on that. Of course, decades later, all the alumni we spoke to now use ASL — American Sign Language — as their primary language, and are deeply resentful of the fact that they were denied that language, as well as the culture that comes with it, for their formative years.
Was this a system-wide pattern of abuse, or was it at the hands of a few individuals?
I guess it sort of depends. Clarke released an independent investigation this last April detailing abuse that students experienced, mostly at the hands of a former teacher named Mary Numbers, who was a prominent figure at the school — the teacher in charge — as well as her brother, Fred, who was at the school for several years and reportedly sexually abused the students.
But as far as the abuse pertaining to signing, or gesturing, or some of the other humiliations that alumni told us they experienced: they said that that was more systematic than the school's independent report made it seem.
How have alumni reacted to the investigation?
The alumni we spoke to said, universally, that the investigation the school commissioned with a third-party law firm was inadequate — that it failed to touch on the totality of their experiences, and seems to focus largely on those two figures, Mary and Fred Numbers. Whereas for them, the experience with abuse was at the hands of house parents as well, [and] other teachers and staff at the school.
How has the Clarke School evolved in its teaching philosophy? Do they now teach sign language?
They don't teach sign language now, but the school has changed significantly over the years. Technology plays a bigger role now, perhaps than ever, at the school — in particular, cochlear implants, which are a surgically-implanted device that can give somebody a sense of sound.
Because of that technology, Clarke is able to mainstream kids into their neighborhood schools very early on, as early as first grade, kindergarten, in some cases. They say that nowadays, they have a zero-tolerance policy for abuse — that abuse does not happen. But no, they do not teach American Sign Language still, to this day.
How did you come to this story, in terms of speaking with some of these students, who say they were abused?
It was one of those classic cases as a reporter, where you write an initial story — in this case, about the independent investigation Clarke commissioned. And it begins to generate lead after lead after lead. Alumni began to come out of the woodwork, and we started to build trust by talking over the phone using ASL interpreters and video phone on their end.
And soon, the number of people we were speaking to swelled to 16 — 12 of whom eventually came on the record to bravely tell their stories.
This is an important school in Northampton.
And you still have students — former students — living in the area?
Yes, as well as students — they operate a K-8 program at Leeds Elementary School in Northampton. So current students of Clarke, obviously, are in the community as well.
The school has expanded beyond Northampton, too.
That's right. They have five campuses now, across the United States.
I think another important thing to keep in mind is the central role that Clarke played in expanding the theory of oralism across the United States. Clarke was the first oralist school, as you say, and by the 1920s, oralism was the dominant theory in deaf education.
Of course, as the civil rights movements came about, and the deaf community started to push back against what they say is the discrimination against their community that they experienced for decades and decades, American Sign Language and educational models that use sign language, or a combination of sign and spoken language, began to become more prevalent.