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Parents Seek Court's Intervention in School Closures

Barrington M. Salmon | 4/3/2013, 4:42 p.m.

First they filed a lawsuit at D.C. Superior Court, then they exhorted a modest but vocal crowd who voiced their displeasure at a school system they accuse of doing their children a grave disservice.

As promised, on March 29, lead attorney Johnny Barnes sought legal redress on behalf of Empower DC, a grassroots organization in Northwest which seeks to stop D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson from closing 15 schools.

"We are making history," said Barnes, a long-time attorney and civil libertarian. "Communities throughout the country are fighting the closure of public schools, but D.C. is leading the legal challenge against closures that represent a significant civil rights violation."

Barnes and his legal team went into the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse in Northwest to formally file the lawsuit with the Clerk of the Court. After the filing, Barnes said he and his team went to the judges' chambers to request an emergency hearing seeking a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to stop the plan to shutter D.C. Public Schools (DCPS).

Cheerleaders from Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Ward 8 led the crowd in cheers which inspired the leaders of Empower DC and the legal team, which includes Kevin B. Chavous, son of former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous.

The popular cheers included "Shame on Mayor Gray, Don't Take Our Schools Away!" and "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Kaya Henderson has got to go!"

Henderson, 43, has been under mounting public pressure from parents and other critics since November when she first revealed her plan to close the schools, a plan that begins in August. But she has insisted that the closings are in the best interest of the students who'll be affected.

When she unveiled her controversial "DCPS Consolidation and Reorganization Plan," 20 schools across the city were targeted for closure. Henderson said all of the schools were either under-performing or under-enrolled. However, following a series of community meetings - some of which the chancellor attended - she returned to the table with a list pared down to 15 schools.

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle between parents and school officials over the direction of the city's traditional public schools. In January, Henderson announced her intention to close 15 District of Columbia Public Schools by the end of academic year 2014. The closures are a continuation of a strategy set in motion by former Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who shuttered 23 schools in 2008.

Barnes, 64, said he was given the hearing date of April 4 at 2:30 p.m. to demonstrate to a judge why the DCPS plan to close schools should be stopped immediately. The legal team's goal is to have a Superior Court judge grant both the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction before May 22, which is the day that the D.C. Council votes on the 2014 District budget.

"That is why we have a sense of urgency on this. On May 22, if a judge does not grant the temporary restraining order and the preliminary injunction, it is a done deal," Barnes said.