Recently, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said she believes local and state governments should be allowed to set their own rules when it comes to discrimination, and the kinds of students they let in. When she was pressed on this issue, and was asked outright if she would allow for states or districts to discriminate based on sexual orientation, race, or disability, Secretary DeVos doubled down and insisted allowing states to set their own discrimination laws is what’s best for our education system.
This mindset is dangerous, and could be one of the most harmful things to come out of the Trump presidency. I can say, from personal experience, that educational discrimination has a lifelong impact.
I began my ninth-grade year at Stanton College Preparatory School, a public high school in Jacksonville, Florida, which at the time was ranked as the third best high school in the nation by Newsweek. This was the perfect high school for me, because it is known for helping students get into their first choice college, mine was Florida State.
During my sophomore year, I became sick and had to go to a neurologist. I was put on anti-seizure medication, and told to avoid things that could trigger seizures, like certain foods or flashing lights.
September of my junior year, the lights in my math classroom started flickering. This made me so sick, I had to call my mother to take me to the hospital every time I went into that classroom. Because of the high school block schedule, I was leaving school at 11:00 a.m. to go to the hospital, every other day. Despite how much I wanted to be there, my body couldn’t handle the classroom, and I had to ask for an accommodation.
I asked my guidance counselor if I could have an accommodation for this problem, and I was told that Stanton doesn’t do accommodations “for the integrity of the program.” I asked if I could take the class with a tutor, or take the class online, or take the class in a different room. I even asked if they would be willing to change the light bulbs.
The school told me again, in so many words, that Stanton doesn’t do accommodations, and that if I needed an accommodation I would have to go to another school. They did, however, assure my mother and I that Duval County had plenty of other programs that were just as good, and willing to accommodate.
I’m not sure how to convey how despondent I was in that moment. I was in the top 25 percent of my class. I was the first trumpet, and co-captain of the marching band. I competed with the Latin club. I got into Stanton because I’m in MENSA. I qualified to go to this school; I wanted to go to this school. I wanted to graduate from the best school in Florida, so I could pursue pre-law at the best law school in my home state. I don’t understand why having epilepsy meant I should go to a “separate but equal” school.
We already have laws to prevent this. The Individuals with Disabilities Act says public schools need to provide reasonable accommodations. Changing a light bulb is a reasonable accommodation. I literally begged the superintendent for help. “I can’t keep doing this,” I told him. “My neurologist says it is bad for my health. My mother is constantly leaving work to take me to the hospital. I’ve had so many IVs, both of my arms are bruised. I can’t spend my junior year like this; I have to do homework and college applications. Can you please help me, Superintendent Vitti?”
Dr. Vitti told me there was a culture of discrimination at Stanton, and there was nothing he could do about it. I had to file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights to graduate high school. They found Duval County guilty of three counts of disability discrimination, and ordered Stanton to change their policies in order to allow me to graduate from Stanton. My college application process was complicated because Duval refused to resolve my transcript issues until after I had already graduated. Because of this, I was denied admission from Florida State University, and I am now entering my junior year at Penn State.
Duval County’s discrimination meant I had to go to school more than 1,000 miles away from home, to get a comparable degree. Honestly, I’m thankful for even having the opportunity to study at Penn State. Thousands of students are in my situation across the nation, and don’t know about the Office for Civil Rights. If I hadn’t known about it, I wouldn’t have graduated high school. The physical and emotional pain was immense, but I never allow myself to forget I was one of the lucky few that was able to graduate high school on time, and go to college.
Educational discrimination happens, and it has tangible, negative, and possibly lifelong impacts on real students. I don’t understand what Secretary DeVos means when she says that it should be up to states to handle discrimination policies. Resolving discrimination issues might be her most important job.