Lawsuit to Keep 49 Chicago Schools Open Faces Setback

Kari Lydersen

Lawyer Tom Geoghegan pointed to a 'racial double standard' in the CPS school closings.

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Chicago parents and teachers opposing the imminent closure of 49 elementary schools suffered a disappointment Monday. A federal judge denied class action status to plaintiffs in two lawsuits seeking to delay or block the closings. The suits argue that closing the elementary schools would have a discriminatory impact on students with special needs and minority students, violating both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Illinois Civil Rights Act.

The lawsuits are still proceeding on behalf of the named plaintiffs — seven parents and their children — and the court could still issue a preliminary injunction preventing or delaying the closure of the five schools those children attend, as well as a declaration that the school district has broken the law. But without class certification, the lawsuits can’t stop or postpone the closure of all 49 elementary schools.

Both lawsuits allege that the closings will impact children with special needs disproportionately, and that the closings plan does not make adequate accommodations for special needs students as required by the ADA. Announcing the closures on May 23 did not allow enough time to develop new individual education plans (IEPs) for the 2,300 special needs students who will be at new schools starting August 26, the plaintiffs say, nor enough time for special needs students to acclimate to their new schools.

Witnesses and plaintiffs testified about the challenges of transitioning special needs students during highly contentious hearings July 16 – 19.

A post-hearing brief filed July 26 also notes that the decisions on where to move special needs students were made by downtown officials rather than the IEP teams on the ground specifically tasked with overseeing students’ well-being. That meant flimsy transition plans, including cosmetic” measures like showing students pictures of their new school, the brief says.

The brief cites the hearing testimony of Rebecca Clark, director of Student Supports in the Office of Diverse Learners Supports and Services for Chicago Public Schools. It says that Clark has no special education background and that her transition plan was based on generic best practices’” including mailing families story books and meet and greet nights with principals or whoever showed up;” rather than counseling and one-on-one meetings with special education teachers. 

The brief also points out that while schools officials embraced a theory of moving special needs students at the same rate as all students relative to their proportion of the student body, they didn’t take into account the fact that special needs students — including many with autism — struggle more with transitions than the average child.

The post-hearing brief also stressed the physical risk faced by students walking to new schools, especially special needs kids including those with autism, who are more likely to run away en route. It cited the city’s plan to spend $7 million on a Safe Passage program to schools as evidence that the transition will indeed entail significantly increased risk.

In denying class certification, federal judge John Z. Lee found that students will be impacted by the closings in varying ways, and that some might benefit academically from the change, as he said the plaintiffs’ expert witness acknowledged. While acknowledging the safety risk to students traveling to new schools, Lee noted that special needs students, including the plaintiffs, often receive transportation from the district.

One of the lawsuits — filed by Sherise McDaniel, Marshetta Ross, Frances and Alphonso Newman, and their children — alleges violations of the Illinois Civil Rights Act in addition to the ADA. The lawsuit says that since 2001, Chicago school closings have been based on 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.”

During a public conversation with journalist Rick Perlstein at the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Hyde Park on August 10, attorney Thomas Geoghegan, who is representing the plaintiffs in both cases, noted that the 2003 Illinois Civil Rights Act allows for a court to find discrimination even without proof of discriminatory intent — a boon in this case.

The post-hearing brief cites the case of George Manierre Elementary near the now-dismantled Cabrini Green housing projects just north of downtown as an example of the racial dynamics involved in the school closures. The district proposed sending Manierre students to Jenner Academy, a nearly all-African American school with a serious gang problem. DNAIn​fo​.com reported this spring on gang members who attend Jenner circulating a hit list” of Manierre students, including plaintiff McDaniel’s daughter.

At the conversation with Perlstein and in the post-hearing brief, Geoghegan described a plan proposed by McDaniel and other Manierre parents as an example of just how desperate they were to save their school…and how deep divisions in the system run.

The parents proposed lending unused space in Manierre to Abraham Lincoln Elementary, a majority white school in the wealthy neighborhood of Lincoln Park that was overcrowded and actually planned to rent space from DePaul University. Manierre parents guessed that Lincoln parents and schools officials would never agree to combining and hence integrating the schools, so they proposed housing the students from the separate elementary schools on separate floors with separate entrances.

Effectively, to save their children’s school, the parents were willing to agree to segregation of the Manierre children from the Lincoln Elementary children,” says the post-hearing brief. It points out that theoretically Lincoln students could have been forced to transfer to Manierre so that the school would not be under-utilized” and Lincoln overcrowding would be relieved.

But, the brief said, there is already real and significant evidence that the Board has a different sensitivity when it comes to moving white children, or children whose parents are more affluent and largely white.”

Ultimately Manierre was taken off the school closings list. At the Hyde Park conversation, Geoghegan indicated he thinks publicity around the increasingly apparent racial double standard was the reason.

Our view is this is a double standard and children are devalued if they are poor and black,” Geoghegan said.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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