Students file civil rights complaints against school closings

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Jorel Moore’s story could be told by any number of Chicago students.

During his freshman year, school district officials announced plans to phase out his school. Each year, new schools moved into the building and his high school was edged out bit by bit. By the time he graduated, Jorel’s classes were squeezed into 1-1/2 floors of the four-story building. Some classes didn’t have enough chairs. The library was non-existent.

“It was really disheartening,” Jorel said. “Senior year is a time that you are being told to go out and be the best, but we really felt like they didn’t care.”

Though his story could be told in CPS, Moore is from New York City. On Thursday, he, along with teenagers from six other cities, stood on a sidewalk in front of Chicago regional office of the U.S. Department of Education to announce that they are filing civil rights complaints based on school closings across the nation.

The reform strategies involved are different, but the common thread, the students allege, is that closings and phase-outs have a disproportionate, negative impact on students of color.

Complaints are being filed on behalf of students from Chicago; Detroit; Baltimore; New York City; Newark, N.J.; Eureka, Miss.; Wichita, Kan.; Boston; Washington D.C.; and Philadelphia.

Several of the complaints, including the one for Chicago, concern the closings of traditional neighborhood schools and the opening of charter schools. But some of the cities are dealing with other issues, such as Detroit where the state took over 15 schools this year.

The students and the organizations they represent also want a meeting “within two weeks” with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlyn Ali. Ali and Peter Cunningham, who is assistant secretary for communications and outreach, have offered to meet with the protest organizers to hear more about their concerns.

“We will evaluate the allegations on the merits as we do all complaints,” said Justin Hamilton, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, in a prepared statement. “We are committed to vigorously upholding civil rights laws and to ensuring that every child has access to the world class education they deserve.”

Longtime activist Helen Moore protested the changes in Detroit and came to Chicago with a group of young people. She says that the state board that took over the schools also has a parent group that they control.

“I have never seen anything so rampantly horrible,” she says.

The groups filing the complaints were brought together by the Alliance for Educational Justice, a new national organization focused on organizing parents and students. The Alliance for Educational Justice, which is funded by progressive foundations, including the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute, is holding a retreat in Chicago.

An organizer for the Alliance for Educational Justice said the group sees many of the reform policies being initiated as school abandonment.

Photo by Mark Chong Man Yuk.