Friday, August 31, 2012

Helping Hunter Spanjer Keep His Name

Grand Island Public School District (GIPS) in Nebraska wanted 3-year-old Hunter Spanjer to change his name because they said it violated the school's weapons policy.

I am outraged.  But more than that, I realize that students like Hunter need advocates.

 As a teacher I've had students with some pretty unique names but never once have I taken it upon myself to rename a child. 

Actually, it wasn't Hunter's audibly spoken name that caused the unrest, it's because Hunter is deaf and communicates through sign language. The school district took issue with his name sign because it resembles a gun and therefore infringes on their policy that forbids children from bringing "any instrument that looks like a weapon" to school.  Apparently, Hunters small fingers--thumbs folded, index and middle fingers crossed--could be confused with a gun so they told him to change his name sign.

Not only is it absurd but it shows a lack of sensitivity, respect and understanding of Deaf culture and family privilege. The school failed to consider the cultural identity of the child, Hunter's linguistic development and the family's right to name their child.  A name is a very personal decision--whether it is in English or ASL--and not one that rests with the school.   

What Grand Island public school needs is a little education. Name signs are given according to set parameters. For example, they should be given by a Deaf  person (the capital D in "Deaf" signifies someone who is culturally deaf with ties to the Deaf community) or at the very least by a hearing parent who signs. Name signs can reflect some physical trait or characteristic of an individual and may incorporate the first letter in his/her name.  Hunter's name sign is a modified form of the letter "H". Over time Hunter's name sign may change--this is a normal developmental process for signers--but that decision is his.

As a deaf child attending a mainstream program Hunter has very little power.  Taking away his name sign is a very significant blow. However, having Hunter at this school can help educate staff and students about Deaf culture. That is why diversity is crucial.

Rebecca Marshall, former principal at PS347 The American Sign Language and English Lower School in New York City said this situation could have been avoided if the school had at least one person on staff who was deaf and involved in the education of children who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Marshall applauded Hunter's parents who are strong advocates for their child but pointed out that without a community outcry the outcome would have been quite different.

The school district, under pressure from Internet petitions, and the threat of legal action from the National Association of the Deaf, has relented and decided to allow Hunter to keep his name sign.

When we hear of something like this happening it is up to all of us to step up and be that advocate who gives voice to a child who needs it most.

Note: This post was written for Teaching Tolerance which can be found here.  


Angella said...

I have just received such an education. Thank you for speaking up for this child, and letting us know his story.

Hilary said...

Wow.. this is ludicrous to me. I'm glad this discrimination was averted but really anyyone with a lick of sense couldn't possible see this as a threat to policy. It's his little hands for goodness sake.. and his name. This is indeed a first step to a better educated system.

David said...

The superintendent's name is threatening and offensive. He (or she) must change his (or her) name to "FOOL". The school principal must do the same.

More seriously, this is the kind of pig-headed behavior on the part of school administrators that is steadily eroding public support for free public education. Do not these administrators see that every home-schooled child is a vote of "No Confidence" in the local public school? I see the day not far off when it will become almost impossible to pass any kind of school bond, and funding for public schoolos will be subject to strong push-back.


Lisa said...


We have just farewelled Carla Rinaldi from Adelaide where legislation will soon be introduced to formally acknowledge children as the bearer of rights from birth.

Hunter's rights have been violated by adults in his life (ie:his teachers) who should be advocating for him. I'm SO SO ANGRY. Thanks Gary - I have tweeted about this to spread the outrage.

Children are citizens from birth not just when they can vote!

Gary said...

Angella - My pleasure. My friend Laurie sent me a link to this story while I was on vacation because I taught a boy named Hunter years ago with a similar name sign and because of my connection with deaf education. I didn't think to write about it until the folks at Teaching Tolerance asked (I was still on vacation) but it is definitely a story that deserves to be told. Thanks for taking the time to read it.

Hilary - I think the story is ludicrous to most people which is probably why the school relented. You make a great point. It is his little hands. It must have been a slow day at the school when they decided to pick on a 3-year-old preschool boy who is deaf. Thank goodness his parents stood up for him.

David - My feeling is that politicians are trying to edge out public education to promote the hegemony of our class system. I am proud to work in the public school system and a little tired of those who bash it.

Lisa - Tweet! Tweet! xo

Arielle Lee Bair said...

Wow wow. Thank you for writing this, for sharing this, and in doing so, teaching us. For poor Hunter to be stripped of something so intrinsic to his person would be tragic and wrong.


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