Empty Promises to D.C.'s Most Vulnerable

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, September 6, 2008

The scene was depressingly familiar: the D.C. government called on the carpet by a judge frustrated with the city's failure to meet the terms of a consent decree.

The courtroom drama I witnessed this week underscored a sad reality: The one true safeguard between the city's most vulnerable residents and acts of governmental injustice is the black-robed figure in the courthouse.

This time, events unfolded Wednesday in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman.

Sitting in the dock were a who's who of Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration: Acting Attorney General Peter Nickles, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and State Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist.

The impetus for the hearing was a report filed by court-appointed monitors Amy Totenberg and Clarence J. Sundram that detailed the city's failure to implement special-education reforms to which Fenty's government agreed last year.

The 70-page report and supporting attachments documented how, when and why city officials failed to meet their legal obligations to D.C. children with special needs.

The city's top lawyer and education leaders had to listen as the judge scolded them for not keeping their word to implement hundreds of settlements and hearing-officer decisions involving children who require special education services.

"A consent decree," Friedman lectured, "is not something you agree to for the fun of it."

Over and over, Friedman threw Fenty's campaign watchword, "accountability," in their faces. At one point, Friedman charged that Fenty's special education program lacked "someone to be held accountable."

Rhee, who is used to being the one who does the upbraiding, clearly wasn't having a good time. Her stoic posture at the defendant's table was betrayed by impatient foot-tapping.

It fell to Nickles to do a mea culpa for the city.

"I'm not happy with our performance," he told Friedman. Nickles pledged that the administration would "hold ourselves responsible," adding that the city would "take the court's comments to heart."

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