Leaders of Closed Academy Threaten to Sue

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008

Administrators of a recently closed summer jobs site are threatening legal action against the city because they say officials did not follow proper complaint procedures.

The East of the River Academy, part of the District's summer jobs program, was closed last week after reports that its students had spent the first month with nothing to do.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) spoke to reporters yesterday morning in front of the P.R. Harris Educational Center in Anacostia, where the academy had been meeting until Friday.

"The city illegally and irresponsibly shut this program down," Barry said. "These young people have been done an injustice."

Students sat in a hot auditorium for the first few weeks of the program. Now they have been reassigned to other sites, where some complained that they were asked to do dirty work, although they had signed up for a summer enrichment program.

"I was put to work cleaning toilets," said Shannon Simms, 17. She said that she'd rather be given an office job that would prepare her for later work and that she wasn't planning to be a janitor.

"If that's what you think of us," Simms said, "I don't even want a summer job."

Dianna Robinson, the director of the academy, questioned the sudden shift of assignments. "These are 14- and 15-year-olds," she said. "They're being put on buses and sent all around the city. No consent from the parents, absolutely nothing."

Academy administrators sent D.C. Acting Attorney General Peter J. Nickles a letter Tuesday night saying that the required notice before the termination of a program had not been given. They threatened a lawsuit to reopen the academy.

"There's a limit in a summer program . . . as to how much due process you can give," Nickles said. "By the time you do the due process, the program is over and you've spent a lot of taxpayer money."

Barry acknowledged that the program had gotten off to a slow start, but he attributed the difficulties to city officials' poor organization. The shutdown was "nothing but political retaliation" for his publicizing payroll problems last week, Barry said.

Problems at the academy were among many this summer at the District's jobs program. More than half of the program's 19,000 students faced payroll problems July 18, the program's second payday. City officials fired the program director days earlier, although they would not elaborate on their reasons.

Carrie Brooks, a spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), said the dismantling of the academy had nothing to do with retaliation.

"The goal of the summer jobs program is to give young people a meaningful work experience," Brooks said. "We intend to make sure that these students have that opportunity."

Representatives from the summer program visited the academy Thursday, Barry said, and told the administrators that students would be reassigned to beautifying public housing complexes. So far, 228 students have accepted the new job. Barry said last week that about 800 students were in the academy.

Some students complained about safety issues.

"I feel a little bit unsafe up there" in the Garfield Terrace housing complex in Columbia Heights, said Timothy Williams, 15, "because it's a beef with my neighborhood."

Brooks said that any safety issues could be brought to the attention of administrators.

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