If children in Caroline John's seventh-grade class at the Patricia Roberts Harris Educational Center on Livingston Road SE get it in their heads to storm the Wilson Building, where the mayor and D.C. Council hang out while collecting their paychecks, who could blame them? I'd probably join the march myself.
And why might schoolchildren be of a mind to hit the streets?
For the past several days, they have watched as Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the D.C. Council prostrated themselves before Major League Baseball with competing offers to spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars to build a new stadium that the owners and baseball fans in Maryland, Virginia and parts of the District might enjoy. The students in Ward 8 might also have read news stories about politicians, educators and assorted hangers-on abandoning the city for a weekend retreat at an estate in rural Virginia, where they engaged in group hugs over the quality of urban education.
Why, pray tell, might children be inclined to storm city hall?
Maybe it's because they see their elders offering already filthy-rich baseball owners a chance to become richer at the city's expense; maybe it's because students in the city's poorest ward are beginning to understand that life at P.R. Harris hardly measures up to public schooling in neighboring Montgomery and Fairfax counties. Maybe the yearn to march is caused by what I saw and heard at their school three weeks ago.
I was invited to Caroline John's classroom to talk about what I do for a living. The best way for the seventh-graders to find out, I thought, was to show them. And what better method than to actually engage them in my kind of work: writing unsigned editorials that speak for the newspaper. (This weekly column is part-time.)
So, after brief remarks about the late Patricia Roberts Harris, the school's namesake, whom I was privileged to have met, and a few words about The Post's strict policy separating news reporting and opinion writing, we got down to the business of crafting an editorial.
Adhering to the advice "Write about what you know," the students agreed to make their school the subject of their editorial. With me acting as recorder and coach, they composed a clear and concise call for change in their school -- a desperate demand backed by facts that should shame a city leadership hellbent on tending to the comfort of the already comfortable.
Their editorial contained these searing details: The school's bathrooms are filthy; an exterminator is needed to kill the roaches in the cafeteria and in the lockers; extra security guards are wanted for protection from neighborhood thugs who enter the school and roam the halls during the day; there aren't enough books to go around.
John, seated in the back of the room with three observers, nodded in agreement.
The school's principal, Theodore Hinton, entered the classroom as I was posting the students' editorial on the blackboard. I read it aloud. He seemed to move his head up and down. Assent? I couldn't read his expression, but something tells me I won't be invited back.
That part is of little importance. What does matter, however, are the conditions under which children at P.R. Harris are expected to learn. An associate and I saw trash on the grounds, even at the school's entrance. As we left, we picked up some of it and placed it in a nearby container. Children, unsafe on the streets, don't feel any better inside their school. Months after the start of the school year, children were still short of books.
This is what their city thinks of them.
Faced with protests against his stadium financing proposal, Mayor Williams gets emotional about his negotiated agreement with Major League Baseball as if it is a holy covenant. As for the city's compact with children? He's dry-eyed.
Baseball confronts us with an economic issue. The issue with the District's children is moral. The Patricia Roberts Harris Educational Center I saw was a slap in their faces. It is also a blight on the name of Harris, the first African American female Cabinet member, first African American female ambassador, first woman to serve as a Howard University Law School dean, only woman to serve in three Cabinet-level positions and a distinguished graduate of Howard University and George Washington University's Law School. Were she alive today, Harris would probably demand that her name be removed from the building. Better yet, she would likely charge into the D.C Board of Education, the mayor's office and D.C. Council chambers and flog those sellouts for allowing a public school to get that way.
In truth, the students at P.R. Harris aren't alone. Many more D.C. children attend schools with filthy bathrooms, unkempt grounds and scarce books.
I've heard it preached that the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference, not giving a damn.
Baseball owners, downtown developers and political insiders draw the love. District children get apathetic lip service.
Jonathan Magbie update: Last week I reported that the D.C. medical examiner declared Magbie's death an accident and said it was caused by "acute respiratory failure following dislodgement of tracheotomy tube placed for treatment of respiratory insufficiency."
Yesterday I asked Beverly Fields, chief of staff to the chief medical examiner, where and when the dislodgement occurred.
"We are only authorized to release the cause and manner of death," she said.
The D.C. Corrections Department had custody of Magbie from Sept. 20 until he died on Sept 24. Yesterday I asked the Corrections Department when on Sept 24 Magbie began having respiratory problems. The department's e-mail response, a clear brushoff, said that it is cooperating with the investigation of Magbie's death and that it will give information to investigative agencies that will determine the facts in the case.
The D.C. Department of Health investigated Magbie's death but has not released its report. Yesterday I asked the department if the "accidental" dislodging of the tracheotomy tube occurred at the D.C. jail facility, in the ambulance or at Greater Southeast Community Hospital, where Magbie died. Briant Coleman, the department's public information officer, was authorized to say, "The incident is currently being reviewed."
Yesterday, I asked the hospital whether the dislodging of Magbie's tracheotomy tube occurred at that facility. Joan Phillips, chief executive officer of Greater Southeast Community Hospital said, "This is now a legal case. Our attorneys are handling it as such. I cannot comment at this time."