Schmidt Honored for Work on Behalf of Schoolchildren and Teachers

Meredith Heagney
Law School Office of Communications
December 30, 2013

Clinical Professor Randall Schmidt, an employment discrimination specialist, was honored by the National Lawyers Guild of Chicago for his tireless work on behalf of Chicago’s public school teachers, students, parents, and other school employees.

Schmidt, along with colleagues from private law firms, was honored with the Arthur Kinoy People’s Law Award on November 8 for a series of cases fighting the actions of Chicago Public Schools. The district  announced at the end of last school year that it would close 47 elementary schools, most of them in minority communities. Schmidt and his co-counsel argued in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, that African-American and special needs children were disproportionately affected and hurt by the closings. Their appeals were not successful, and the schools stayed closed, but Schmidt said the fight was a worthy one.

“We fought, we did the best we could, and the court ruled against us,” he said. Timing was not on his side, either. Though the cases were filed before the end of the school year, the evidentiary hearing on Schmidt’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the school closings was heard in mid-July, just weeks before the start of the academic year. By that time, the schools already had been physically shuttered, equipment was moved, and students were assigned to new buildings. “We were so close to schools opening for the following school year, and ultimately there was no way to undo it,” he said.

Despite the high stress of the closings cases, Schmidt’s co-counsel Thomas Geoghegan said Schmidt was “always the most unflappable, the calmest, the most focused of all of us. I was so relieved we had an anchor like that on our legal team. He is a consummate lawyer, a very congenial person, and best of all, in any emergency, you can count on him to keep his head.”

Schmidt still has two cases pending in district court related to discrimination in Chicago’s public schools. First, he’s representing three teachers laid off in 2011, alleging that the layoffs were discriminatory because schools with a higher percentage of African-American teachers were targeted. Schmidt and his team expect to file a motion for class certification early next year so the case can proceed on behalf of all African-American teachers laid off in 2011.

A separate pending case focuses on 2012’s so-called school “turnarounds,” when the district chose 11 schools in need of reform and terminated all their personnel. Again, a disproportionate number of black teachers and staff were fired, Schmidt said. His team has field a motion for class certification, and they expect a decision early next year.

Schmidt agreed that public education in Chicago is troubled and change is needed. But that change needs to be fair and non-discriminatory, he said. “What concerns me is that it seems the burden of education reform is being borne by African-American students, teachers and communities.” Plus, he added, schools are a pillar of life in minority communities; a robust school community is needed as a counterpoint to gangs and other negative choices children have.

Schmidt’s co-counsel on these cases and fellow award honorees are: Robert Bloch and Josiah A. Groff of Dowd, Bloch & Bennett; Geoghegan, Sean Morales-Doyle, and Michael Persoon of Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan; and Robin Potter, M. Nieves Bolanos, Alenna Bolin, Patrick Cowlin, Matt Farmer, Jim Green, and Shankar Ramamurthy of Robin Potter & Associates, PC.

Several Law School students worked or are working on these cases too. They are: Cara Chomski, ’13, Alex Cross, ’14, Nascine Howell, ’14, Isabella Janusz, ’14, Benjamin Kelly, ’14, Jay Kumar, ’14, Jason Meade, ’14, Christian Mejia, ’14, Rebecca Rickett, ’15, Josh Singh, ’14, and Jonathan Wiggins, ’13.