Chicago Public School community watchperson Keisha Powe stands guard along 63rd. Street across from Dulles School on Sept. 2, 2014, in Chicago. Chicago children returned to school Tuesday walking past even more guards than last year, when concerns about safety prompted the city to line the streets with 1,200 adults every day. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

(Correction: Earlier version mislabeled who protested at high school. It was community members, not students.)

The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating three complaints filed on behalf of African American parents in New Orleans, Chicago and Newark alleging racial discrimination in the closing of scores of neighborhood public schools in those three cities.

The complaints were filed in recent months by the Journey for Justice Alliance, a national coalition of education justice groups. The department sent three separate letters confirming that it would launch Title VI federal civil rights investigations,  though they all noted that no determination had been made regarding the merits of the complaints.

African American residents in these three cities  have been concerned for years that their children were being disproportionately and unfairly affected by the closing of neighborhood schools and the opening of charter schools — often far from where the children live — as replacements. In Chicago alone, nearly 160 neighborhood public schools have been closed, consolidated, phased out or “turned around” in the past 15 years.  In New Orleans, the Recovery School District is now entirely made up of charter schools, and in Newark, plans to close at least a quarter of the city’s public schools and increase the number charter schools were just some of the reasons that Ras Baraka was elected mayor this year on an anti-school reform platform.

This week, town halls and other protest actions were held in the three cities to draw attention to the situation.

To understand what the complaints are alleging, here is part of one filed in May involving Chicago schools:

School closings, phase-outs, turnarounds, and consolidations have particularly devastating consequences in communities of color that have already been destabilized by divestment, the process of being systematically starved of resources over the course of many years. For the past decade-and-a-half, Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) has promoted an aggressive policy of closing and privatizing public schools in communities of color. Over the past thirteen years, CPS has closed, phased out, turned around, or consolidated 159 neighborhood public schools and adopted policies that have fostered a proliferation of charter and contract schools in the West and South Sides of Chicago, which are neighborhoods with high concentrations of African-American families and students.

Continuing its policy of dismantling the public school system and harming children of color, in May 2013, CPS closed 49 elementary schools and one high school program, an unprecedented and drastic mass closure. At the time, approximately 40 percent of the children in the Chicago public schools were African American, but African-American children made up 88 percent of those affected by these closings, phase-outs and turnarounds.

The Bronzeville neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago, where Dyett High School and Mollison Elementary School are located has disproportionately suffered the devastating consequences of these policies. Bronzeville is a historic African-American community once dubbed the “Black Metropolis” because it was a haven for African Americans migrating from the South through the 1930s and 1940s who, due to restrictive and racially discriminatory housing policies, were denied housing elsewhere in the city. It continues to be heavily populated by African-American families, and is rich with significance for the African-American community. Author Richard Wright, journalist and social activist Ida B. Wells, jazz man Louis Armstrong, and singer Sam Cooke, are just a few of the names that have called Bronzeville home. Unfortunately, this once vibrant community is being decimated by the obliteration of community assets: neighborhood schools.

In the greater Bronzeville neighborhood … CPS has closed, phased-out, turned around, or consolidated around 30 public schools in the last twelve years,4 disproportionately subjecting countless African-American students in the area to the disruption of school closings. At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, CPS exacerbated harms to African-American children in Bronzeville when it closed Overton Elementary School and designated Mollison Elementary School its receiving school, and it continues to provide little to no additional resources to support the educational experience of the nearly doubled student population. In February 2012, CPS designated Dyett High School for phase-out, and it continues to strangle the school of its resources and its morale.

Complainant asserts that the overcrowding and under-resourcing of Mollison Elementary School, where many students are forced to eat lunch in their classrooms because the school is accommodating close to double the number of students it had last year (from a student enrollment of 237 last year to 505 this year), is racially discriminatory, and constitutes a continuing violation of Title IV and VI. Complainant also asserts that the continued phase-out of Dyett High School, what community members have termed a “slow death” because CPS has continued to make a series of decisions to disinvest in the school and set it school up for failure, where students have no Advancement Placement classes remaining and are forced to take physical education and art classes online, is racially discriminatory, and constitutes a continuing violation of Title IV and Title VI.

Complainant further brings to OCR’s attention that CPS is creating a school desert in Bronzeville, as it will soon become a community with little to no neighborhood schools. Once Dyett High School is phased out, there will be no traditional public high schools in the entire Bronzeville community. CPS is engaging in a pattern and practice of targeting school closings, phase-outs, turnarounds and consolidations in African-American neighborhoods that is racially discriminatory and having a disparate impact on African-American students.

Dyett supporters recently staged a sit-in at City Hall and were arrested.

Meanwhile, even as it agrees to investigate three civil rights complaints about the closing of public neighborhood schools and the opening of charters, the Department of Education recently announced that it was awarding 17 grants totaling $2.8 million to charter school developers.