Activists: D.C. school-closure lawsuit could come by end of March

March 15, 2013

Opponents of D.C. school closures said Thursday night that they plan to file a lawsuit against the city before the end of the month.

Speaking at an anti-school-closure rally at Temple of Praise in Southeast Washington, attorney Johnny Barnes declined to say whether he plans to file the lawsuit in local or federal court.

“We’re going to surprise them when we file the week of [March] 25th,” he said. “This legal team will fight, and we think we’ve got a compelling case to make.”

Barnes and the community group Empower D.C. have joined forces to fight Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to close 15 city schools. It’s a civil rights battle, they argue: The closures are clustered in low-income neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park and the Anacostia River, and disproportionately affect African American children, poor children and students with disabilities.

“We’re going to go to court, and we’re going to let them know that our children matter just as much as theirs do,” said Julianne Robertson King, a member of Barnes’s legal team.

School closures in other cities have prompted vigorous protests, civil disobedience, even arrests. But in the District, the outrage appears to be more muted than elsewhere and more muted than it was here in this city in 2008, when then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee closed 23 schools, prompting fierce resistance and political blowback.

Approximately 100 people showed up for the rally Thursday, leaving many pews empty in the Temple of Praise sanctuary.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we just don’t feel these issues anymore,” said Cinque Culver, a Ward 7 civic leader who led an unsuccessful fight in recent years to keep River Terrace Elementary open. “That’s why this room isn’t packed. . . . People are tired.”

But those who attended were passionate. Two dozen students from Ferebee-Hope Elementary, a Southeast school slated for closure, welcomed the crowd with cheers and chants.

“Shame on Mayor Vincent Gray, don’t take our public schools away,” they sang. “Hey hey, ho ho, Kaya Henderson has got to go.”

Previous closures have not resulted in improved academic outcomes for children, longtime D.C. schools activist Mary Levy told the crowd.

Joy Hicks-Parker, a mother of four, said her daughter has attended two schools that were closed and now is a student at Shaw Middle at Garnet-Patterson, which will be shuttered in June.

“I’m tired of fighting for schools to stay open,” said Hicks-Parker, who, like many families affected by the closures, is African American. “I don’t want school closures to be a racial issue,” she said. “But they are.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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