The community organizing group Empower DC has filed a lawsuit against the city in hopes of halting the closure of 15 public schools, stating that the closings violate the U.S. Constitution and city and federal laws.
A crowd gathered outside of the H. Carl Moultrie courthouse on the morning of March 29 as attorneys and parents spoke out against Mayor Vincent C. Gray and DC public schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson for the proposed plan. The closures will disproportionately impact low-income, disabled and minority students, according to Empower DC.
“Closing schools is an integral part of destabilizing and displacing low-income communities,” said Empower D.C.’s executive director Parisa Norouzi.
School officials first proposed cutting 15 under-enrolled public schools in the city’s southeastern quadrant in January in hopes of consolidating resources and saving $19.5 million. The first 13 schools are set to close at the end of this year, and the last two schools will close at the end of 2014. Of the 2,700 students that will be affected by the closures, 94 percent are African-American and 96 percent are low-income according to attorney Mary Levy. Only two white students in total will be affected, according to the data.
“All you have to do is look at the numbers and its pretty clear that this is an injustice,” said Norouzi. “Certain people are being treated very differently than others.
Lead attorney Johnny Barnes stated that the city is denying certain students equal opportunity to education in favor of another group. Most of the school closings are to occur in neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park, which are comprised of mostly minority students, according to Barnes.
“They haven’t done this in other parts of the city; that’s the crutch of the case,” he said. “You can’t treat one class of people differently than you treat another class of people. “
Students from Ferebee-Hope Elementary school in Ward 8, one of the 15 schools set to close, attended the rally. Children donned pins that read “Mayor Gray stop closing our schools” as the school’s cheerleading team chanted “Shame on Mayor Gray, don’t take public schools away,” in protest.
Ferebee-Hope parent of two, Shannon Smith, says that as a result of the closures, her son will have to walk through unsafe neighborhoods to get to school.
“Right now he just goes out the front door and crosses the street,” she said. “Now he’ll have to go down through the drug dealers. There could be guns out there.”
School closings will also have an adverse affect on the city’s severely disabled students. Twenty-seven percent of the students affected by the closings are among the city’s severely disabled, according to Levy. Parent Andree Harris, who has two special needs children attending Sharpe Health School in Ward 4, was notified in a meeting that her daughter would be transferred to River Terrace Elementary School.
“Sharpe Health was built for children with special needs and now she’s being transferred,” Harris said. “I feel like they are the backburner babies, and the forgotten children; the parents and the children ought to have a say too.”
Empower DC has had experience advocating for educational equality in the past. During the first round of closures in 2008 by Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the organization worked with affected communities, trying to gain city support to help boost enrollment. The group also worked on a campaign called “The People’s Property Campaign” in protest of the city giving away public property, including schools, to high-end housing developers.
“We’ve worked with communities that had their schools closed decades ago and are still trying to have them reopened,” she said.
This case is unique in that Empower DC does not usually file lawsuits, according to Norouzi. The group usually relies on the organization of the community to enact change, but in this case, it wasn’t enough.
“The mayor and the city council were ignoring the concerns and outcries of the community so we were forced to take a legal approach,” she said.
Norouzi noted that schools in Ward 3, the city’s wealthiest ward, have experienced under enrollment in the past, but were not shut down. She is hoping that instead of closing schools, the city can find a way to boost enrollment.
“They found innovative ways to make sure those schools were attractive to the community, and that’s what we’re asking for our lower income communities as well,” she said.
The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in Federal Court on May 10th by Judge James Boasberg, a former D.C. Superior Court Judge. An emergency hearing in the D.C. Superior Court originally scheduled for April 4 was cancelled after the city exercised its right to have the case moved to federal court. A decisions is expected before May 22 when the D.C. City Council will vote on the 2014 fiscal year budget, according to Empower DC.
We have a rich history here of being fair and treating our citizens equally when it comes to education opportunity,” said Barnes. “We have reclaimed that you cant have one city unless you have one standard.”