From cheating scandals to broken schools, how New Yorker writer Rachel Aviv tells education stories

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From the Atlanta cheating scandal to separate and unequal special education in Georgia, Aviv discusses how she reports her education stories, the similarities between education journalism and criminal justice, and her desire to tell stories from different perspectives.

By Kristen Doerer

Rachel Aviv’s recent New Yorker story on Georgia’s troubled network of schools for disabled students is a searing piece of journalism. It shows how much damage is being done to students forced into the program and the plight of educators who find themselves participating in an unjust, ineffective system.

The story, “Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special-Education System,” is told in large part through the experience of Latoya Martin, who is fighting to get her autistic son Seth Murrell a proper education in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support system. Aviv also introduces us to Seth’s conflicted teachers, one of whom hits Seth.

This isn’t the first story to uncover serious problems with the Georgia program. But Aviv’s reporting is set apart by her in-depth interviews and her observations from more than 100 hours of classrooms surveillance videos. She also describes how a program originally created to help children with emotional and behavioral disabilities has turned into a trap that isolates and neglects students, a disproportionate number of whom are black boys.

Though not exclusively an education writer, Aviv also wrote 2014’s “Wrong Answer,” which tells the stories of teachers in the Atlanta Public Schools system facing criminal charges for cheating on state-administered standardized tests. That story was listed in our roundup of memorable education stories, and a movie based on it (with Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler, and Ta-Nehisi Coates) is in the works.

Interviewed by phone, Aviv talks about how she found and reported her latest story, the similarities between education journalism and criminal justice journalism, and how she gained the trust of sources including black educators who, placed in an impossible situation, ran afoul of the law.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

"Georgia's Separate and Unequal Special-Education System" by Rachel Aviv. When Seth, who has autism, was four, he was placed in a new school. A family member described it as a kind of ghost town. Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier for The New Yorker.

“Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special-Education System” by Rachel Aviv. When Seth, who has autism, was four, he was placed in a new school. A family member described it as a kind of ghost town. Photo by LaToya Ruby Frazier for The New Yorker.

Kristen Doerer: How did you come across this story?

Rachel Aviv: I had written a story last fall about elderly people and people with disabilities who are stripped of their legal rights through improper guardianship. Right after I wrote that story, a lawyer emailed me telling me that I should look into the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS, program in Georgia. She knew I was interested in the intersection between disability and race. And at that time, I had made a new friend who had a daughter with a disability and she was talking to me a lot about how difficult it was — how she was constantly having to advocate for her daughter in order to get her daughter the education that she was entitled to. If it’s this hard for her, this woman who has plenty of resources and advantages, it made me think about the lawyer’s email about students in Georgia, most of whom did not have much money and were often African-American.

KD: How did you pick Seth and his family as your central characters?

RA: I was put in touch with this woman, Leslie Lipson, who is a lawyer with the Georgia Advocacy Office. She worked on the ground with families if they had a problem with the GNETS program or if they want to try to get out. At the very beginning, I was talking to about five different families. My first conversation with Latoya, she just talked for an hour straight. Something about the way she talked and the way she interspersed memories from her own childhood drew me to her. She was such a devoted mother. One factor for me in trying to decide whom to write about is always how invested is this person in the process of making the facts of their story known. Am I going to be intruding by asking, by constantly calling her and asking to spend time with her? And she just seemed really ready and eager to talk about it. There also was a lot of documentation of what had happened to her son. That was probably the most important factor. I knew that there were these surveillance videos, though at the beginning I didn’t know if I would get access to them.

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Rachel Aviv at Brown

An image of Aviv from a 2016 profile of her work in her college alumni magazine.

KD: There were a few passages in the piece where it made me forget that we were in a school and not in a jail. Did you mean to draw that parallel or was it impossible to avoid?

RA: I think it was impossible to avoid. I remember watching one of the surveillance videos and hearing Melissa Williams-Brown, one of the teachers, say, you know if he doesn’t listen, he’s going to be locked up. So I think the teachers themselves were aware of the trajectory of many of these students, which may have made them less inclined to support them — I guess it was as if everyone saw them as a lost cause.

Many of the GNETS facilities are really run down. Seth’s school was not, so just looking at the classroom, it looks nice enough. I ended up watching roughly 100 hours of footage and, at the beginning, it felt like there was something so surreal and eerie about these classrooms with one or two students in them. The kids would just spend a lot of time bouncing a ball against a wall and lying on the floor. It felt really confusing — like such a waste.

KD: I was really curious how race might play into your reporting because you have these amazing stories of black teachers put in impossible situations and then judged very harshly. How did you get the teachers to tell you their story?

RA: I was surprised by how willing the two teachers, Avondika Cherry and Williams-Brown, were to talk to me. I think they were glad that someone was placing what had happened in a larger context. They really felt like they had been made scapegoats and that they had a story they wanted to tell about how angry they were, about why they had been placed in that role, in that position. I’m sure that the fact that I’m a white person coming from New York City creates all sort of different dynamics than if I weren’t, and it creates a different kind of interview, a different kind of interaction. I don’t even know if trust was the point for them; I just think that they were angry about the way that they had been treated and the fact that no one listened to their side of the story.

KD: One of Seth’s teachers, who eventually quit, didn’t want to talk to you or be named in the story. How did you get her to talk to you?

RA: I just looked up her address and drove to her house. She had lots of really aggressive dogs that were coming at my car and I actually turned around, because I was afraid of these dogs, and then she finally came out of her house and got the dogs to leave me alone. I had written her a Facebook message and she hadn’t responded, so she kind of knew who I was, so she ended up talking to me while we were outside. In smaller towns, I’ve done that when I know someone’s not going to talk to me, but I always want them to tell me why they don’t want to talk to me.

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aviv story 2018

Seth and his mother Latoya in an image from the New Yorker piece.

KD: What was the hardest or easiest part of the story?

RA: One thing that was great is that Georgia has a really good Open Records Act law, and every single open records act request that I filed was responded to within about two weeks. And Seth’s mother Latoya just gave me everything. She was just happy to give me her documentation and she would just scan it for me or she would tell her lawyer to give it to me. However, I did feel like maybe fewer people read this story than other stories that I’ve written in the last year. It was really grim so that was a challenge, thinking about how to structure a story in such a way that readers grasp all the dismal and dark aspects of this education system but aren’t so depressed that they stop reading.

KD: What has the effect of telling this story has had the sources?

RA: Latoya wants to organize all of the parents of GNETS students and have a protest. And I think she’s felt really good. Even before the story came out, she was happy to be telling what had happened in a definitive way. And I think she likes the idea that Seth went through this experience but that it will turn into something, it will be for the better of other students like him.

I haven’t talked to Cherry since the article came out, so I don’t know. I think for her she wanted to explain what had happened and the circumstances of why she ended up in that position, because now she has a criminal record, and it’s been really hard for her to get a job. I do hope that she gets a job and she recovers from this and is able to move on.

wrong answer 2014

The New Yorker’s art for 2014’s “Wrong Answer.” Illustration by Oliver Munday

KD: How was this similar or different from reporting the Atlanta story, “Wrong Answer”?

RA: For this latest story, I was watching the teachers do really outrageously inappropriate things in the classroom. I also really felt bad for them and felt like they had been placed in an impossible role. And it was really easy to demonize them, and they were demonized. But also, I just didn’t fundamentally feel it was their fault. And I felt sympathy for them. Obviously, it’s harder to feel sympathy for these teachers after watching them talk about their students disparagingly in the classroom than it was for me to feel sympathy for some of the teachers in Atlanta who ended up cheating, just because they treated their students more kindly. But I still felt that in both cases bad behavior needs to be put into the context of a structure that is encouraging people to morally transgress.

The teachers in this story weren’t villains but the institutional structure had tasked them with something that they couldn’t possibly achieve on their own. And so they were taking shortcuts and they were sort of giving up and losing faith in their ability to teach.

KD: You focus a lot on people’s intentions in your stories. Why is that so important for you?

RA: Well I think in both of these cases, there was a simplistic discussion surrounding why a teacher would hit a child or why a teacher would cheat. With the “Wrong Answer,” I felt it was important to look at the pressure that testing has placed on these teachers who really did want their students to learn and felt like the testing was taking away from that goal as opposed to facilitating it. And then in this most recent piece, I was struck by the fact that the system is so dysfunctional, but in the end, it was a teacher who got put in jail. I couldn’t help but notice in both cases that the teachers who were punished were all African-American.

KD: Is there anything that draws you to education stories in particular?

RA: Lately, I’ve written a lot about criminal justice, and lately there’s so much good journalism about criminal justice, but a lot of stories are starting to feel familiar. What comes before the criminal justice system is the education system, and examining education more closely is a good way to think about how we ended up where we are in our prison system.

Kristen Doerer is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Previously, she has profiled ProPublica’s Hannah Dreier, described the importance of mentors in education journalism, examined the fellowship model, interviewed one of the filmmakers behind “America to Me,” and identified the most memorable education stories of all time. You can follow her at @k2doe.

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