Clinic Files Suit on Behalf of Parents of Children Impacted by CPS Closings

The education of students with disabilities and race discrimination are the subjects of two class action lawsuits filed today in federal court against the Chicago Board of Education by parents of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students. The suit also has the support of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The parents seek an injunction against all proposed school closings by the City and CPS for violations of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Illinois Civil Rights Act (ICRA).

The litigation is being handled by Despres, Schwartz and Geoghegan, Ltd., Robin Potter & Associates, P.C., and the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago. The respective plaintiffs include Mandi Swan, Denise Burns, Felicia Bradley, Sherise McDaniel, Marshetta Ross, Frances Newman and Alphonso Newman, on behalf of their children and all the other children impacted by the closings.

The first suit charges the Board, CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the City of Chicago with violating Title II of the ADA in their proposal to close 53 elementary schools. It reads:

In violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the defendants propose to carry out the closings of 53 elementary schools in a manner that does not permit a timely and orderly process either for the proper review and revision of the individualized education programs (IEPs) for the plaintiff children and over 6,000 other children in special education programs or for the extra services and counseling such children require to make the difficult transition to unfamiliar schools and unfamiliar teachers and students. By putting off their decision on the closings to the eleventh hour, or the very end of the school year – for the largest closing of public schools in American history – the defendants place the plaintiff children and other children in special education at far greater risk than their non-disabled peers.  The late date makes it impossible to conduct the closings without significant disruption to the programs in which these children participate and without adequate provision for the special safety risks faced by children with disabilities. In violation of federal law, this late, ill-timed, and ill-prepared program for the closing of 53 elementary schools will have a discriminatory impact upon the plaintiff children and other children with disabilities, compared to their non-disabled peers.

“There is no way that in a few short months the Board can responsibly do the counseling and provide the support services these children with disabilities need,” said CTU Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle, a former special education teacher. “These proposed closings will inevitably put our students at greater risk for academic failure.”

Parents fear that by holding off the closing decisions to the eleventh hour and rushing children into new and unfamiliar schools without adequate counseling and support services, the Board will inflict harm and present severe obstacles to growth for the more than 6,000 children in CPS special education programs in the affected schools. They are asking the federal court for an injunction to delay school closings for a period of one year.

“This is a tragedy in the making,” said plaintiff Denise Burns, the mother of a child living with a disability. “Let’s slow down and do this sensibly.”

The second suit charges the Board, Byrd-Bennett and the City with violations of Title II of the ADA for their proposal to close “so-called ‘under-utilized’ schools and needlessly uproot, transfer, and destabilize plaintiffs and thousands of other children in special education who will suffer academic and emotional setbacks as a result,” and adds a claim of racial discrimination in violation of Section 5 of the ICRA as parents seek to block the Board from continuing to select African-American children in school closings. It reads:

[I]n violation of Section 5 of the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003 (ICRA), 740 ILCS 23/5, and by repeatedly selecting African American students to bear the costs of the closings, the defendants have unlawfully used “criteria and methods of administration” that have the “effect” of subjecting the plaintiffs’ children and other African American children represented by the plaintiff parents to discrimination because of race. In conducting closings since 2001, the defendants have used various shifting criteria that they allege to be race neutral but that always have the effect of singling out poor and marginalized African American children to bear the educational and human costs of the closings.  For the 72 schools that defendants have closed to date, African American children make up more than 90 percent of the displaced children; and in currently proposed closings, they make up more than 80 percent of the displaced children.  Yet African American children constitute only 42 percent of the children in the public schools.

The impact on African American children is in stark contrast to the impact on white children – who have been almost universally insulated from the negative educational consequences of school closings.  The 54 schools selected by the CEO for closing have a combined enrollment of 125 white students out of a total enrollment of 16,059 students – less than one percent.

Since the Board began closing schools in 2001, it has been in violation of the Illinois Civil Rights Act, according to the parents. Of the 72 schools the Board has closed to date, more than 90 percent of the displaced children are Black.  In the latest closing proposal, 88 percent of the children in the closing schools are African-American, yet Black children make up only 42 percent of the students in the Chicago public schools. 

“The Board says they use neutral criteria, but somehow they keep finding criteria that will single out only African-American children,” said plaintiff and parent, Frances Newman. Her husband Alphonso added, “When these schools close, these children know they are being stigmatized because of their race.”

The CTU has led the vigorous charge against the experimental school reform policies that have harmed CPS students since the city’s public schools were turned over to mayoral control in 1995. Rather than close existing schools, CPS should provide schools supports that have a track record of success; a broad deep curriculum based on inquiry rather than mindless testing; trauma counseling and healthcare; opportunities for professional collaboration and growth; respect for professional judgment; and real opportunities for parental decision-making and involvement.

“School closings as policy is unsound,” said CTU President Karen Lewis, a nationally board certified teacher. “This city has worked systematically to undermine our public education system and destabilize certain communities. There is no magic bullet, but we do know that research-based policies, targeted resource investments and reforms that are geared towards nurturing environments put our schools on track for steady improvement.

“We hope the courts act swiftly to stop this assault on our schools, our students and our communities,” she said.