CPS Closings: Trumbull Parents File Federal Discrimination Lawsuit

By Adeshina Emmanuel on June 20, 2013 11:45am 

 Trumbull LSC members Mark Miller (left) and Randy Heite (far right) discussed Trumbull with reporters at a Tuesday news conference.
Trumbull LSC members Mark Miller (left) and Randy Heite (far right) discussed Trumbull with reporters at a Tuesday news conference.
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DNAinfo/Adeshina Emmanuel

ANDERSONVILLE — Supporters of Lyman Trumbull Elementary School filed a federal lawsuit against the school district Wednesday after indicating earlier in the week that they would fight to stop the school's closure, arguing disabled students suffered discrimination during the closing process.

The plaintiffs in the suit are two Trumbull kids with disabilities, their mothers and the pro-Trumbull community group Friends of Trumbull. Trumbull was one of 50 "underutilized" schools the Chicago Board of Education voted to close to cut costs.

Wednesday's lawsuit, filed in federal court, attacks the space use formula Chicago Public Schools used to decide if schools were "underutilized" and thus vulnerable to closure. CPS' formula assumes an ideal class size of 30 students. But state laws about special education class sizes (which could loosen if some state officials get their way) require significantly smaller classes.

The suit seeks an order to stop the closing and argues that the defendants — the Chicago Board of Education and its CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett — were "deliberately indifferent to, and recklessly disregarded" disabled students' "rights as persons with disabilities."

"Defendants have refused to adjust their utilization formula, insisting instead that the children be treated as if their disabilities did not exist, and as if they could and should occupy classrooms of a size not permitted by their disabilities," said the suit.

The three-count discrimination suit, which demands a jury trial, accuses school officials of violating federal statutes that prohibit recipients of federal money and public entities from discriminating on the basis of disability — Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mark Miller, Trumbull Local School Council member and an organizer with Friends of Trumbull, said of the lawsuit: "No one can say that we did not put up every possible fight that we could."

Special education students comprise about 37 percent of the school's student body of 400, which would be split between McPherson and Chappell elementary schools in Ravenswood, and McCutcheon Elementary School in Uptown if Trumbull closes.

The children in the suit are only listed by their initials, J.N. and D.H.

J.N., 9, is a 3rd grader with Down Syndrome. D.H., 11, is a developmentally delayed 6th grader who suffers from mood disorders.

According to the suit, "the lower student-to-teacher ratio in the special education classrooms constitutes a crucial feature of Trumbull’s education program, in that it permits teachers to de-escalate the anxiety, frustration and conflict that disproportionately affects children with autism and other disabilities."

The suit claims Trumbull students enrolled in special education cluster programs were assigned to either McCutcheon and McPherson — but not Chappell, a top-rated school.

"By relegating the Children to McCutcheon," the suit alleges that CPS seeks "to segregate the children and deprive them of the integrated setting they have enjoyed and benefited from at Trumbull."

"This segregation is particularly stark, given defendants’ apparent intention to place children from Trumbull’s cluster programs in a school building entirely separate from that of the general education students," the suit said, referring to McCutcheon's annex building, which currently serves as storage but would be used to accommodate Trumbull kids.

The suit also accuses CPS of issuing additional criteria for school closures (such as removing "Level 1" schools from a list of potential closures) without submitting the change to public comment beforehand.

CPS had no immediate comment, but district officials maintain they have worked with Trumbull to assess special education students and direct them to schools capable of handling "each student's diverse needs."

Of the three schools that will welcome Trumbull students, only McPherson is accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act. CPS has said it will invest in welcoming schools to improve ADA accessibility.

CPS already faces two federal lawsuits seeking to halt school closings based on the potential detriment they pose special education students.

Parents and the Chicago Teachers Union also recently filed a suit in Cook County Circuit court seeking an injunction against 10 school closings that independent hearing officers determined should be stopped or delayed. Joseph Stockton and Graeme Stewart elementary schools in Uptown are two of the 10 schools named in the suit.

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