Lawsuits filed over school closings

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In the two lawsuits filed in federal court Wednesday to try to slow down or stop school closings, the central charge is that special education students will be disproportionately hurt by the actions.

This, according to the lawsuits, is a violation of the American Disabilities Act. More than 5,000 students are enrolled in either the 53 schools slated for closure or the ones set to receive them.

“It takes years to build trust with these children,” says attorney Tom Geoghegan. “All that will be lost or destroyed when we send them to new teachers in new schools.”

One lawsuit asks the judge to force CPS to wait a year so that the district can ease the transition for special education students from one school to another. The other wants a judge to halt the closures, questioning whether CPS will save significant money from closing the schools.

Next Wednesday, the CPS Board of Education will vote on the actions, which would represent the largest district restructuring ever.  The lawsuits ask for an emergency injunction, but Geoghegan says he isn’t requesting a hearing prior to the vote next week.

The lawsuits are being paid for, at least partially, by the Chicago Teachers Union. They were filed on behalf of parents at various schools slated for closure.

In years past, lawsuits have unsuccessfully attempted to block the district from shutting schools. It is a difficult task given that the school code allows districts to open and close schools.

In addition to alleging a violation of ADA, one of the lawsuits adds the allegation that closings are in violation of the Civil Rights Act because they single out “poor and marginalized African American children.” Some 88 percent of the students who stand to be affected by this year’s school closings are black, while they represent only 42 percent of students in CPS, according to the lawsuit.

“Since 2001, CPS has found one excuse or another to close schools attended by African American children,” Geoghegan says. “If you have to save money find some other place to save money. It is time to lay off the kids.”

Geoghegan also represented plaintiffs last year in a lawsuit that alleged racial discrimination in school actions. The lawsuit was dismissed, but is being appealed.

In a prepared statement, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett did not address the specific accusations in the lawsuit. She said the lawsuits show that the union leadership is “committed to a status quo that is failing too many of our children. “

“Thousands of children in underutilized schools are being cheated out of the resources they need to succeed,” said Bennett, who has promised extra resources for designated receiving schools. “It’s time to give these children the opportunity to attend higher-performing welcoming schools and put them on a path to thrive.”

One of the arguments for waiting a year is that CPS put off the decisions until the end of the school year.  Geoghegan points out that usually decisions about school actions are made much earlier in the school year.

This year, Barbara Byrd-Bennett took over CPS in October and promptly asked the state legislature to let her delay the announcement from Dec. 1 to end of March. Because state law calls for 60 days between the announcement and the decision, the vote can’t take place until late May—only a few weeks before the end of school year.

“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,” according to the lawsuit.

Kristine Mayle, a former special education teacher and current financial secretary for the union, says that teachers take time to prepare disabled students for transitions.

“For students with autism and more severe disabilities, for six months, teachers might walk a student over to the classroom and slowly acclimate them to their new class,” she says.

CPS officials still have not said whether the teachers of special education students will follow the students and the students still do not know their teachers for the coming year, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also says that the transition plans around safety lack specificity, which is a particular problem for students with disabilities. The lawsuit points out that several independent hearing officers who reviewed the school closing plans also found problems with the lack of specificity.

“Plantiff children and all children in special education risk even greater harm than children who are not in special education to the extent that they are forced to walk through new, unfamiliar and dangerous neighborhoods, an experience that exacerbates the effects of their condition,” according to the lawsuit.

The other lawsuit charges that the school closings will cause special education students irreparable harm and that it outweighs any financial benefit to the school district. Among other issues, it says that class sizes in receiving schools will be bigger than those in closing schools. Big class sizes hurt special education students more than other students, according to the lawsuit.

Rod Estvan, education organizer for the disability rights group called Access Living, noted that it might be hard for attorneys to prove their case, even if it might have merit.

Estvan has been attending a CPS subcommittee on school actions and says CPS officials are methodically going through a checklist of steps to make sure they can defend the treatment of special education students. While he is not sure of the quality of what they are doing, Estvan says CPS will be able to show they are making an effort.

Yet he notes if CPS lawyers bring generic plans to the federal judge they may have problems. The independent hearing officers launched into CPS for providing general material.

“What they brought to the hearing officers was pathetic,” he says.