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Judge Rules D.C. School Closures Not Racially Biased

Dorothy Rowley | 7/22/2014, 2:48 p.m.
A federal judge has ruled that the closure of 15 D.C. public schools wasn't racially discriminatory, a setback for black ...
Shannon Smith expressed her displeasure about D.C. school closures during a rally on the steps of McKinley Education Campus in Northeast on June 2. The pleas of Smith and other parents didn't prevent the shuttering of Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Southeast and other District schools in 2013. Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah

A federal judge has ruled that the closure of 15 D.C. public schools wasn't racially discriminatory, a setback for black parents who say they face such obstacles when attempting to actively participate in their children's education.

U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg dismissed Friday a lawsuit brought by Empower DC, opining that issues of school privatization were best decided by the voters in the upcoming mayoral election, not by the courts. The white judge, who attended elite private schools while growing up in upper-crust Washington, acknowledged that the closures impacted Black students disproportionately, but denied there was evidence of a racial motive in the school closings plan.

Johnny Barnes, a lawyer representing Empower DC in the matter, said the ruling would be appealed.

"We were not surprised by this ruling, as the judge signaled his posture from the outset," Barnes said. "We however are not deterred and will appeal. The rise of school closures in Black communities, the undue influence of private funders who profit from school privatization — this is Brown vs. Board 2.0. There are disputed facts in this case and the judge should have allowed these facts to be considered by a jury."

The case Smith vs. Henderson was originally filed in early 2013, challenging the constitutionality of the decision by Mayor Vincent Gray and schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to close fifteen public schools in black neighborhoods. The plaintiffs are members of Empower DC, a citywide community organization promoting the self-advocacy of low- and moderate-income DC residents that has led organizing efforts to block school closures.

"There is nothing more crazy-making then telling Black people, who are being disproportionately harmed and impacted by government policies, that there is no evidence of racial intent simply because no one in power was found to have made explicitly racially discriminatory statements," said Parisa Norouzi, Empower DC's executive director. "But that is the reality that our constituents face daily in D.C., as the city targets black communities for 'transformation,' aka displacement to make way for the new, wealthier and whiter residents moving into the city. Institutionalized racism is rampant in D.C. today, despite the presence of black elected officials."

Empower DC is inviting parents to share their stories of discrimination and help write a Parent Bill of Rights as a basis of affirming their role in their children's education.

"Through these latest closures DCPS has caused harm to 3,000 low income children of color, stripping them of the friends, teachers and staff which provided them support and made up their community," said Daniel del Pielago, the group's education organizer. "DCPS has done this without investing time or resources to ensure the well being of students after school closures and without making promised investments in the receiving schools. We must continue to organize against the planned closure of Sharpe Health and Mamie D Lee Schools, attended by our most vulnerable special needs students, to save them from the same fate."