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How parents' trust of school officials can lead to segregation

Parents and teachers discuss racial inequalities in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School system at the Carrboro Century Center in September of 2017. 

Parents and teachers discuss racial inequalities in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School system at the Carrboro Century Center in September of 2017. 

Trust is a central part of public education, according to a UNC professor who presented her new research for the first time to the UNC community.

Department of Sociology professor Karolyn Tyson explained how parents’ trust of public education officials can actually lead to school segregation by perpetuating the already unequal treatment of students.

"Trust in Times of Crisis and Change: Black Parents and Trust in Schools in the Aftermath of Desegregation" was the latest installment of Ethics Around the Table held on Thursday in Dey Hall. The program, part of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics, hosts several hour-long discussions each semester, where attendees can enjoy a complimentary lunch while a faculty member speaks about ethical issues related to their field.

For Tyson, that issue is the disproportional representation of Black students in special education classes within public schools.

Tyson, who plans to eventually publish her findings, conducted qualitative research in her case study of a public school in a wealthy, majority-white suburban district in the Northeast.

She relied on personal testimonies, obtained through around 100 interviews she conducted, to convey the problem: public school officials often recommend that parents of Black students enroll their kids in special education classes. Some parents who questioned these recommendations have found that their child did not actually need those types of classes.

In effect, these practices end up segregating Black students, so they are overrepresented in special education classes. For example, a New York school district with a population that is 7 percent Black that began placing students in special education classes after desegregation now has a special education program with 41 percent Black students, Tyson said. 

That’s where the matter of trust enters the situation. Tyson said she wanted to examine the role of trust in a different way than what is typical in her field.

“One of the things that I’m noticing in the literature, in particular in sociology, is that we talk more about understanding why people trust, and I’m more interested in understanding why they don’t trust,” she said. “So I’m sort of interested in thinking about distrust and the protective nature of distrust.”

Some of the parents that Tyson interviewed did not accept the school’s recommendation to enroll their child in special education classes. For example, one parent had his child tested by a psychologist at a local university to determine that he did not need to be segregated from his classmates. Not every parent had the means to question the school system, though.

The unique perspective on trust was one part of the program that first-year Sophia Ramirez enjoyed most.

“I had never really considered in these sort of situations the role that trust plays and how difficult it must be to regain the trust of a community,” Ramirez said. “That’s something that I've seen in action, but I had never heard it laid out in such scientific, research-based terms before, and I had never considered research being done on that topic, so that was both surprising and refreshing to me.”

Parents in the school district ended up filing a lawsuit when they realized that kids were not actually learning in special education classes, but were actually being held back.

Tyson pointed to one student who spent one-third of the school day in self-contained special education classes that were taught at a level far below her ability. The student had to miss other classes, like science, that put her too far behind to meet the requirements for leaving the special education program.

This is just one anecdote that Tyson used as evidence in her research. She said that she is interested in demonstrating these patterns of inequality in a way that is different from how they have been presented in the past.

“I’m sort of dissatisfied with the way in which many scholars talk about trust,” Tyson said. “Because I find that what I want to do with this project is I want to write this story, and I want to tell this story, but I want to tell it in a way that the people who are in involved in the story find it accessible.”

Tyson’s qualitative research allows this type of storytelling. The patterns of inequality in public education that Tyson highlighted are also present in Chapel Hill schools, she said. 

After her presentation, Tyson responded to the audience’s comments as she took notes on their ideas. This kind of engagement was another aspect of the event that Ramirez appreciated.

Sam Zahn, another first-year in attendance, took away from the event a new perspective on the interplay of race and education.

“It’s a great reminder of the amount of American institutions that are tainted when applying a racial lens to it,” Zahn said. “You're constantly reminded that race is everywhere.”


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