Editorial: Clarke must reckon with its past while planning for its future

  • Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 1/18/2019 9:45:01 AM

It’s easy to judge the past through the lens of the present, but even 45 years ago, when Mary E. Numbers published her book about the first hundred years of the Clarke School for the Deaf, the title should have been telling: “My Words Fell on Deaf Ears.”

Numbers, who was employed by Clarke from 1919 to 1963, wrote the book in her retirement at the invitation of the board of trustees. But the history of Clarke, which was the first oralist school in the country and celebrated for leading the way in deaf education, also includes dark and disturbing chapters — chapters that only recently have come to light.

For the Gazette’s special report, “ ‘In a glass box’: Clarke School for the Deaf alumni detail decades of abuse,” reporter Dusty Christensen interviewed 16 former students of the Clarke School for the Deaf, a residential school founded in 1867 that was located on Round Hill Road in Northampton and that closed in 2012.

Over six months of reporting, a picture emerged telling a very different story about the world-famous institution than the one presented to the public through decades of press coverage. Alumni described the fear they felt on a daily basis as children living at the boarding school, which played a major role in promoting oralism — a pedagogy that favored teaching oral speech and lip-reading instead of sign language. But, as Christensen notes, “the school often enforced that philosophy with cruelty,” beating children’s hands with brushes and rulers if they used sign language or gestured.

“I was afraid to ever talk — I was afraid of the punishments,” said former student Kim LaRocque​​​​​, who described being left in a dark basement at the age of 5.

It was “a cycle of intimidation, oppression, control, corporal punishment,” said another former student, Bernie Brown, who described being punched and strangled on a pingpong table.

The Gazette first learned of the abuses at the school last April, when Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, as the organization is now known, released a third-party investigation into alumni allegations of past abuse. Among the findings was a culture of punishment at the school from the 1950s to the 1970s, including “constant and extreme corporal punishment” by Mary Numbers and nine reports of sexual misconduct or abuse by Numbers’ brother Fred Numbers. The investigation also found inaction on the part of George Pratt, Clarke’s fifth president.

In the wake of these revelations, we as an editorial board are grappling with the dual legacies of Clarke. It was hailed as a cutting-edge school, but to many former students it felt more like a prison. It was celebrated for its pioneers, but it also had its share of punishers, like the Numbers and several “houseparents” who inflicted physical pain on students when they didn’t adhere to house rules. It was championed by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone — and a eugenecist who viewed deafness as an affliction that could be minimized or wiped out through breeding with hearing people. Clarke’s main offices in Northampton are still located in Alexander Graham Bell Hall.

There isn’t a major institution — or a country, for that matter — that has a spotless history. But if 2018 taught us anything, it’s the importance of reckoning with past wrongs. Clarke has created a “limited fund” to provide financial support for medical and mental health treatment for alumni who were victims of abuse. But some of those same alumni want more transparency from the organization after reading its report last April. “They should have had a paragraph of recommendations — actions that the school should take,” Brown said. “And there was absolutely nothing.”

In an editorial this August, we called upon Clarke officials to offer “a public accounting of actions taken or planned to help the victims heal.” We hope Clarke continues to reckon with its complicated history, while planning its future.

Around a decade ago, Clarke finally took down memorials to Mary Numbers, including a plaque and display copies of her book. Records for Clarke School for the Deaf are housed at the UMass Special Collections and University Archives, and we hope the collection will someday tell a full history of the school, allowing visitors to navigate all the complexities and contradictions for themselves.

Clarke is a different institution today, with day schools located in Northampton, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Jacksonville, Florida, as well as a wide range of programs for both children and adults who are deaf or hard of hearing. Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech now use a “Listening and Spoken Language” approach to help mainstream children into their neighborhood schools. While Clarke doesn’t teach American Sign Language, it works with doctors, audiologists and educators to help families with deaf or hard-of-hearing children navigate the choices available to them.

We know there are compassionate people doing good work through Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech. We know that parents only want what’s best for their children. And we know that conversations about deaf education are still as contentious as ever. What is the best way to teach a deaf child? Who gets to decide? How do you bridge the hearing and Deaf worlds without stripping the latter of its identity?

We don’t pretend to have the answers, but it’s crucial that parents of deaf or hard-of-hearing children know all their options.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

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