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Depositions for D.C. School Closures Begin Friday

Dorothy Rowley | 2/17/2014, 1:51 p.m.
Civil rights attorney Johnny Barnes addresses a crowd in 2013 during an announcement of a lawsuit to halt the closings of public schools in the District. (Courtesy photo)

Parents and education advocates agitated by a rash of school closings by D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson are invited to submit questions to be used in depositions regarding the closures.

Henderson, who is slated to be questioned under oath on Feb. 21, is among several government witnesses called upon regarding a lawsuit filed nearly a year ago by civil rights attorney Johnny Barnes on behalf of grass-roots advocacy organization Empower DC.

"We have begun pouring through thousands and thousands of internal DCPS documents and emails received during discovery," Barnes said. "The content provides a window into the infrastructure that was responsible for decision making within DCPS. We look forward to these depositions with expectations that we will learn even more about that which motivated the closing of schools."

While a federal judge dismissed the bulk of the lawsuit in October involving the shuttering of 15 schools in the mostly low-income Wards 5, 7 and 8, he allowed several of the civil rights claims to move forward.

In upholding the plaintiff's core complaints, the judge wrote in his opinion that "the parents and guardians have alleged sufficient facts to state claims of discrimination under the three civil-rights provisions at the heart of their case: the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, and the D.C. Human Rights Act."

As a result, the District, which became the first city in the nation to file a legal challenge against school closures that disproportionately affected students with disabilities, has also become the first in the country to have withstood dismissal and entered the discovery phase, according to Empower DC.

"In this case, Empower DC exemplifies David going against the Goliath of not just DCPS and the District government, but the large, powerful and wealthy network including the likes of the Waltons and the Gateses who drive privatization-based school reform throughout the country," said Parisa Norouzi, Empower DC executive director.

"It is no secret to us that there is more than meets the eye with regard to public education in D.C. Being the nation's capital, we have been used as a laboratory for the so-called "reform" movement. The proceedings of our lawsuit will bring that to light," she said.

Mayoral control of city schools began in 2008 when 4,000 students were either transferred to other schools that have also been closed, or displaced entirely from the DCPS system. Since then, 29 of its schools have been shuttered.

Empower DC contends that the 2013 closings, which affected more than 2,700 students, had not been subjected to studies to determine their impact, and that no evidence was provided to show how the closures would improve students' education.

Meanwhile, people who have prepared questions for the chancellor's deposition, as well as others with information about the inner workings of the DCPS, can forward their submissions via Twitter @empowerdc, by emailing Daniel@empowerdc.org or by calling anonymously at 202-234-9119, ext. 106.