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Parents, Concerned Residents Fight Back

Barrington M. Salmon | 3/27/2013, 11:52 a.m.

Empower DC Files Lawsuit to Stop School Closings

For the past several years, parents in the District have agonized over school closings that have decimated the value of community schools and disrupted their children's lives.

But that anger and increasing frustration, while palpable, has not been able to deter city leaders and school administrators from going ahead with the closing of 15 District of Columbia Public Schools by the end of academic year 2014. The closures are just the latest go-round of the shuttering of schools since 2008 under the former chancellor.

In response, activists are taking an action that they say indicates the level of seriousness with which they view the current situation. On March 28, a lawyer for Empower DC will file a lawsuit to stop Henderson from closing the schools on her list. Empower DC is a grassroots organization based in Northwest.

"They are discriminating against black and brown children, children with disabilities and where people live - all suspect categories," said longtime civil libertarian and lawyer Johnny Barnes during an interview Saturday. "We believe that this has resulted in the violation of the U.S. Constitution as well as several federal and local statutes. There are several counts and multiple claims. You can't just treat people this way."

"We filed a statement of claim to allow the [city] government the opportunity to discuss, mediate or arbitrate and they declined."

Henderson has been under mounting pressure from parents and other critics since November when she first revealed her plan to shutter schools which will begin in August. But she has insisted that the closings are in the best interest of the 2,000 students who will be affected.

When Henderson, 43, unveiled her controversial "DCPS Consolidation and Re-organization Plan" 20 schools across the city were slated for closure. She said all of them were either under-enrolled or under-performing. However, following a series of community meetings - some of which the chancellor attended - she returned to the table in January with a list that was pared down to 15 schools.

Daniel del Pielago, the education organizer for Empower DC, acknowledged the gravity of filing a lawsuit.

"It's a big step," he said, while waiting at a Chicago airport after attending a conference of groups and individuals fighting similar school battles elsewhere around the country. "We've seen nothing in the past showing that this improves anything. What we get is a loss of public school students and an additional burden on taxpayers. I think parents are very concerned and very confused with what's going on."

"[School officials] said they're putting together a plan to retain students, but I go to affected schools and [parents] say they don't know what's going on. In conversations with Spanish-speaking parents, they say they've seen nothing in their language and they're not told what's going on. This just shows that there's a plan that they're engaged in and the end result will deeply and severely affect a majority of people, most who are minorities and our children."