It was Kimberly Stangarone’s first week on the job.

A Woodrow Wilson High School graduate, she had just finished school at Eastfield College and started her job as a police officer at J. L. Long Middle School. Now she was chasing a student who was blatantly ignoring her instructions.

“Hey, you can’t go that way!” she yelled, but he just kept walking.

Finally she caught up with him and caught his attention. He looked at her wide-eyed, and her frustration immediately dissipated. As the student signaled his hearing, Stangarone realized he was one of the 50 students in Long’s deaf education program.

Embarrassed, Stangarone attempted to convey her apologies and let the student continue on his way.

It was her first run-in with a deaf student at Long, but it wasn’t her last.

Long is one of nine campuses within Dallas ISD’s Regional School for the Deaf, along with Stonewall Jackson Elementary, where the program originated. It serves 620 hearing-impaired students from across North Texas, most of whom attend class with hearing children, following the same curriculum and classroom structure as the general student body with accommodations such as an interpreter or a deaf education teacher.

The encounter made Stangarone think: What if a student faced an emergency and wasn’t able to communicate it to her? They’d have to wait for an interpreter, killing what could potentially be precious time.

That thought didn’t sit well with Stangarone.

Then her fears were realized — a situation arose where two students needed her help, but they had to wait for someone who could translate their need.

“It hurt me because they were waiting and waiting, and I think they felt like, ‘Oh we’re not important,’” she explains.

“They wanted to get the situation handled, and so I tried to write things out, but with ASL (American Sign Language), they don’t write things normally. So it’s even hard to write things down sometimes.”

The incident sparked a desire to learn how to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing students. She asked school interpreter Darryl Joubert about sign language. After noticing her genuine interest, he eventually suggested she take a class to learn to speak with her hands.

So that’s exactly what Stangarone did. She started taking night classes in order to learn ASL, although that didn’t stop her from bombarding Joubert and the other interpreters at Long with plenty of questions.

“She’s very eager to learn,” Joubert explains. “She’d practice with me in the morning. I’d get to work early to practice with her or help her, if she didn’t understand a sign. Sign language became a passion.”

“The students are more comfortable to talk to her when they need help. It’s important that the deaf and hard of hearing kids do not feel like they are limited in communicating.”
She has been learning and practicing American Sign Language for more than two years now, and the more she learns the more students open up to her in ways she didn’t originally anticipate.

“I’ve built up a such a rapport with the students that they’ve started to tell me their problems,” she says. “As a police officer there’s this idea that we’re just tough and we don’t care. I tell my students I’m not here to pick on them; I’m here to protect them, and if they ever need anything they can come to my office.”

Others at Long have noticed the positive effects of Stangarone’s effort as well. She has become good friends with Ana Michel, a teaching assistant at Long.

“The students are more comfortable to talk to her when they need help,” Michel observes. “It’s important that the deaf and hard of hearing kids do not feel like they are limited in communicating, especially at school where students should feel welcome to express their struggles at school and at home with a police officer.”

Not only does Stangarone speak English and sign, but she also speaks Spanish, so she has even been able to translate ASL into Spanish for some students.

It’s more than just a language, she points out. It’s a culture, and learning ASL has given her a unique glimpse into deaf culture from the perspective of someone who grew up hearing.

“In hearing culture it’s rude to point,” Stangarone explains. “Well in deaf culture, you have to point because you have to show what you’re talking about. And in hearing culture, it’s natural to look around while talking. In deaf culture, eye contact is really important, so it’s rude to look away.”

When Stangarone has questions, Michel, who is deaf, is quick to give her pointers. Their friendship has been a fun side effect of Stangarone’s decision to learn sign language — not to mention Michel lets her practice signing.

“When I first met her she could sign some words and often relied on the interpreter to tell her what was being signed,” Michel recalls. “Now, Kimberly and I can hold an entire conversation.”

And she doesn’t intend to stop there. She started the ASL interpreters program at Collin College in the fall to become a certified sign language interpreter.

“I think being in a program where I can better my sign language will help,” she says. “I’d be able to use it anywhere. I’m not going to stop being a police officer, but I just want to have my ASL interpreter license. So that’s my next goal.”

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