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On the Podcast: Elevating Equity and Justice with Robert Kim

EquityandJusticeOneHow do we connect our teaching to the times we live in today?

In his new book, Elevating Equity and Justice, education policy expert and former civil rights lawyer, Robert Kim, takes us on a deep dive into ten cases of great historical impact, providing background and information on each as well as an explanation as to why it’s important to know them.

Download a sample chapter from Elevating Equity and Justice!

Bob’s writing brings these court cases to life without overwhelming us with “legalese” and dos and don’ts. Bob recently sat down to talk about why this book is so important for teachers and what in his background led him to write it…

Below is a full transcript of this episode. 

Bob: I've always thought about concepts of fairness, and equity, and justice through the lens of public schools. I think the origin of this book for me was thinking back to my own experience in public schools. I grew up in the '70s and '80s as a Gen X kid, and I was one of those typical latchkey kids, which for people that don't know that term is a student who or a kid who comes home and typically because their parents are working really hard, there was nobody home or very little presence of folks at home.

So as a result, I was at school all the time. I grew up in a suburban school in New Jersey, and so my whole life was sort of in public schools growing up. I think that led me to both sort of look at concepts of fairness and equity through my experiences in public schools, and I had both amazing experiences where I was incredibly privileged because I lived, I happen to live in a neighborhood and community that was relatively well to do in New Jersey.

So there were so many wonderful experiences that I had where I could do basically any activity that the school had to offer ranging from music and sports to literary clubs and you name it. At the same time, where I had all of that privilege and sort of the benefits of a wonderful public school education, there were also some ways that in which school was not fair or just for me as a Asian-American kid growing up in a small town in New Jersey, which was at the time in the '70s, it was literally almost 100% white.

That was hard for me, and so there were moments where I was bullied and harassed in school, and there were also times when I felt misunderstood or misdiagnosed in a way educationally by some of my teachers at school because I was this child of Asian, South Korean immigrants. The feelings of equity I think and justice came to me at a very early age through public schools.

Fast forward many years, I decided to become a lawyer, ended up working at the American Civil Liberties Union in California. There, I started to work on cases involving civil rights and civil liberties in schools. So I worked on cases involving harassment of LGBT kids in schools. One of the first cases I worked on was one of the first cases in the country actually to establish that under Title IX. Schools could be liable for harassment by one person against another person at the student level in a school and that schools could be liable for failing to do anything about that.

I also worked on free speech cases involving both teachers and students. I worked on due process cases where kids were being kicked out of school unfairly or unjustly, and privacy cases. I remember in California, going to the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas because we had heard that a school was trying to find out about student drug activity by bringing these drug-sniffing canines, these drug-sniffing dogs, and lining up the students and their belongings, and having sort of a drive-by with drug-sniffing dogs, and so there were some feelings that that was not right, that that was a violation of privacy.

So those experiences, both childhood and early professional I would say kind of started to lead me to think about how much equity and justice... how schools are such a perfect place to talk about all of these concepts. So I think that was... Those are some experiences that I've had that led me to want to write about this topic.

Brett: Through your experience and through your writing, you really highlighted with this book things that I think we sort of assumed were naturally rights or were things that were in existence in terms of the law that really weren't so until very recent years ago. How are these cases still so relevant for 2019 and as we look ahead to 2020?

Bob: Oh gosh, there's so many things. I mean, I think every case... First of all, the book that I wrote has just 10 cases. I will say there's so many that we could have chosen from, but the 10 that I chose, each one of these cases comes from the US Supreme Court and has such a direct connection to kind of what's going on today with the issues that were involved in these cases like... and so for example, one of the first cases I talk about is a Title IX case involving a girl who was harassed by a male student. Her name was LaShonda Davis.

What happened was the school, she alleged, was not doing enough to respond to some pretty sensational facts around the sexual bullying and harassment that she was experiencing at the hands of a male student, and the court decided that the school's response, inadequate response to what happened to LaShonda was a Title IX violation.

You fast forward today and you think about the Me Too Movement, you think about epidemic of sexual assault, sexual violence, and sexual harassment that's going on not only in colleges, which I think many of us have started to hear about, but really at the K-12 level as well, and we don't hear as much about that in the news.

When I worked in the Obama administration at the US Department of Education, we had hundreds, if not thousands of cases around the country that we were looking at involving K-12 sexual harassment as early as middle school. I would say probably some of them were even before middle school. It is something that is very, very prevalent as educators around the country know in the elementary, middle, and high schools as well. So that one case, that one chapter that I... in which I talk about this case involving LaShonda Davis has a direct parallel to school environments today.

Brett:  You mentioned there's only 10 cases in the book, and they seem to me as I read like recent history, only a few years old. Some of these, the case you just referenced is only from 1999. Why these 10? What is it about these 10 that we should be focused on?

Bob: Yeah. Well, I was going back to think about recently why I had chosen these 10, and I think you... There are so many lawyers know this very well, and I should say for your listeners that I'm a lawyer. I'm not an educator. Although I've worked with many, many educators over the years. Lawyers know that in terms of cases that affect teachers, there are thousands out there that affect teachers, whether teachers or school administrators are aware of it or not.

There are literally thousands of cases out there, so it's impossible to really pick just 10. So that was the initial problem I think with trying to limit a book, but I think these 10 cases are a good bunch because, number one, they come from the US Supreme Court. So they affect every public school teacher at least in the country. Number two, these cases have legs. They have staying power. They're not likely to be overturned in the near future. Well, maybe we could talk about that with respect to one or two of them, but they really are important cases that are not kind of fly-by-night.

Number three, I think they cover the gamut both in terms of the constitution and a lot of the legal issues, whether it's the First Amendment, or privacy under the Fourth Amendment, or fairness, and equal protection, and due process under the 14th Amendment. So they cover the gamut of legal issues I think for teachers and schools.

Then, finally, I will just say that I try to pick cases that would cover a diverse range of students that we educate in our schools, so that includes students of color. It includes immigrants and undocumented students. There's cases that we talk about English learner students or emergent bilingual students. There's a case where we talk about students with disabilities. There's a case where we talk about students of various religious backgrounds, and there's a case that talks about the plight of low-income students in schools with many, many poor students. Really, even though there's only 10 cases, I think we cover a lot of ground both legally and in terms of the range of kids that walk through our school doors every day.

Brett: I want to point out that you do cover a lot of ground, but beautifully. I mean, the pages, the layout, and the design of this book is incredibly accessible. Initially, some people might think, "Legal cases. There might be some legal language in here." You have written this in a way that has made it so accessible. Every case makes sense. You've written it in a very understandable way for anybody without a law degree to access it. Can you just sort of walk us through a little bit of how you have each case broken down and sort of the different things you're doing within each case to help us understand them better?

Bob: Sure. I mean, well, one of the challenges writing this book, and I think teachers will appreciate this, the last thing you want is a very long and dry legal tome on the pronouncements of the US Supreme Court. I mean, it's like, "Oh my gosh, we have enough inservice trainings where the legal spiel comes out and you have the mandatory Title IX training."

It's easy for this stuff to not come alive. What I wanted to do and what I hope that I've done is to really make these cases accessible, giving you only what you need to know about the facts or just pulling out the most interesting parts about these cases and no more. Also, introducing the real people in these cases.

I don't want legal cases to be divorced from all of the actors within the cases, so you want to know what's going on with the student who was banned from school for being an undocumented immigrant. For example, Alfredo Lopez in one of the cases. You want to know about the parents in these cases, the parents of the students who in many cases are real heroes. They are the ones who were courageous enough to talk with their children and say, "Should we fight this? Should we fight what's going on, the injustice that we're experiencing?" You also want to know about the advocates, the lawyers or the people who went to bat for the students and the parents.

Each chapter has not only a brief sort of summary of the case with the important facts, and what the Supreme Court said in the case, and some of the concepts in the case that might be important for teachers to know, but they also have sections and vignettes on either a student, or an advocate, or a parent, and what the case meant for that person and how they reflect on that today, of what happened to them today.

Then, the chapters also go into some more real resources for teachers about, "Okay. Here's a case about school searches," or, "Here's a case about educating students with disabilities. How can we be more proactive about those issues in our classrooms or at school?" So there's a section about getting proactive about that and some resources that teachers can look at if they want to find out more about the topic.

Most important, I think there's a section in each chapter that includes actual educator voices, where teachers are sharing what the case means to them and what they've done in the classroom to address issues of inequity involving, you name it, whether it's undocumented students, whether it's a student's free speech rights, or English learner rights, or due process in disciplining students. The teacher voices I think in these chapters provide such an important bridge between the law and actual practice and pedagogy in the classroom.

Brett: With these cases, when we're looking at the recent developments, is there movement still in some of these cases? Certainly, the Lopez case is from the '80s. Are there things that we need to be sort of aware of and keeping an eye on with these cases? Are they still in movement?

Bob: Terribly in movement. Every single case, there's something going on with them today that is terribly interesting. So just with that case involving Alfredo Lopez, this was a child in Texas who was undocumented, and the state of Texas and the school district had decided that they wanted to discourage undocumented students from attending school, so they set up a extra tuition hurdle. This is public school, mind you, but at the time, they set up a tuition where each child of an undocumented family had to pay $1,000 in tuition per year to attend public school.

I think for many families, that was... and this is many decades ago, so $1,000 is a lot more than it is today. But even so, $1,000, even $100 to attend public school where your peers don't have to pay that $100, you can see the unfairness in that. That was the case where that policy had been erected, and then the Lopezes decided to fight it. It all went all the way up to the Supreme court, and the Supreme Court decided that undocumented students in the eyes of the constitution are to be treated equally as documented students, and that even though they're not citizens, schools cannot do anything to treat those students any differently than any other student.

Then, you fast forward to the politics of undocumented people today and immigrants today in this country, and you have... Even as recent as this year coming up, we have a case in the Supreme Court involving undocumented people in this country, and there's a challenge by people protesting the cancellation of DACA, which many of us know is the program around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. So this was an Obama era program that allowed non-citizens who unwittingly entered the US as children with their parents, and who have clean criminal records, and who meet various other educational or military requirements. They can apply for a two-year renewal of their... what has been called Deferred Action, or it's kind of a relief, a relief from deportation to another country.

So that DACA program was terribly important to hundreds of thousands of students in this country and is now being challenged, and the Trump administration decided to remove that program a couple of years ago. So that's being challenged now, whether that removal or cancellation of that program going forward is allowable or not, and so the Supreme court will be talking about that.

Now, that's an immigration case, whereas the case that is in this book around... with Alfredo Lopez is a domestic equal protection case. It's about how immigrants should be treated in schools, so it's a little different from the DACA context in a way, but it still involves undocumented people and undocumented students. If you read the Plyler case, Plyler versus Doe, which is the Alfredo Lopez case, you kind of be hard-pressed to think about why are we even debating the cancellation of the DACA program today because I thought that undocumented students should be treated equally. So it's just interesting as you read these cases that were from, in some cases, a few decades ago and try to draw the parallels to what's going on today. It really strikes you in a different way about how we should be treating these controversies today.

Brett: What are you hoping... As teachers read this, what is your hope for them?

Bob: First of all, I hope that the book is enjoyable, that they enjoy reading it. I've worked with teachers around the country. I used to work at the National Education Association, so in the Civil Rights Department of the NEA, and we would go around and speak with teachers all around the country. I know that teachers are super busy and that it's not the first thing that comes to mind is to stop and read a case or a book about legal issues involving education.

My hope is that teachers will enjoy this, this kind of accessible and hopefully interesting book, and that they'll find it historically interesting as well because each of these cases is, in a way, kind of like a historical artifact. It captures a moment in time where there's something pretty important involving education is going on in these cases. So I think to read them as a whole is almost like taking a little mini course or refresher in American history as you read about cases from the Vietnam War era or you read cases even 20 years ago, 25 years ago that are an aftermath to, let's say, the war on drugs that started occurring and gained steam in the '80s.

So really, I hope that, first of all, that it's enjoyable to teachers, and then I also hope that it might help educators reconnect to their values around equity, and fairness, and justice. Many of us go into professional life, and we formally were either activists or really cared about issues in society, and what's fair, and what's right. Then, somehow we go into our professional lives and we kind of disconnect from that because we're so consumed with what's going on right in front of us, but hopefully, the book might allow... It definitely allowed me to reconnect to my own sense of what's right and what should I be fighting for.

If anything, my dream would be that this provides, in some ways, a call to action and empowers teachers to go out there and if anything, do what they know is to be right both with respect to students, but also themselves as well. What can I do in the school setting, in the school environment to make conditions more equal, more fair for my students? How to both respect their rights, but also, teach them in some ways about rights and about what's fair?

We know how important that is today for students to understand fairness and to be able to advocate for what's right, and those are skills that students can be taught. So hopefully this book would provide some tools for teachers be able to do that, to look at themselves and what they can do, but also, maybe take some information or use some of the tools that are recommended to instill in their teaching and in their curriculum.

Learn more about Elevating Equity and Justice at Heinemann.com

Download a sample chapter from Elevating Equity and Justice!


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robertkimRobert (Bob) Kim is a leading expert in education law and policy in the United States.

A former civil rights attorney, Bob is the co-author of Education and the Law, 5thed. and Legal Issues in Education: Rights and Responsibilities in U.S. Public Schools Today (West Academic Publishing, 2019 & 2017). He also wrote Let’s Get Real: Lessons and Activities to Address Name-calling & Bullying (Groundspark, 2004) and has advised thousands of educators on civil rights and school climate issues in public schools.

Bob currently serves as an education adviser and consultant on civil rights and equity issues. Through 2019, he was the William T. Grant Distinguished Fellow at Rutgers University, where he conducted research on school finance and education equity in U.S. public schools. 

From 2011 through 2016, he served in the Obama Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which enforces federal civil rights laws in K-12 and postsecondary institutions nationwide. 

He has also served as a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association, where he advised school personnel on human and civil rights issues and worked to replace the No Child Left Behind Act. 

Earlier in his career, as a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Bob engaged in litigation and advocacy pertaining to race, criminal and juvenile justice, bullying and harassment, LGBT rights, and student rights.

Bob holds a BA from Williams College and an JD from Boston College Law School. 

You can find Bob on Twitter @bob__kim

Posted by: Steph GeorgePublished:

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Social Justice, Elevating Equity and Justice, Robert Kim, DACA

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