CHICAGO — Two federal suits filed Wednesday seek to halt school closings based primarily on their potential ill effects on special-education students.
One suit seeks to "slow down the process so we don't have a tragedy," said attorney Thomas Geoghegan, who filed the suits on behalf of a handful of parents with children in the Chicago Public Schools. It calls for a one-year delay in the closings.
The other seeks to stop the process entirely, and cites the way school closings are primarily set for minority neighborhoods on the South and West sides. "It can't be swept under the rug any more," Geoghegan said.
According to Geoghegan, CPS has closed 72 schools since 2001, and more than 90 percent of the displaced students were African-American. He estimated that 88 percent of students in the 54 schools slated to be closed this year are African-American, yet African-Americans make up only 42 percent of all CPS students.
Whether based on "utilization" or school performance, he said, the closings always seem to affect African-American students unfairly, violating the Illinois Civil Rights Act.
"The criteria are illegal, in our view, and the whole process ought to be redone," Geoghegan added.
"The [school] board says they use neutral criteria, but somehow they keep finding criteria that will single out only African-American children," said Frances Newman, a plaintiff in the latter suit.
"When these schools close, these children know they are being stigmatized because of their race," added her husband, Alphonso Newman, who also signed on to the suit.
Both are filed seeking class-action status. They charge CPS with violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Geoghegan said, "because of the significant and, we believe, irreparable harm that will be done to children in special-education programs if these closings occur." Geoghegan said 5,200 special-education students would be involved either at closing schools or so-called welcoming schools taking in the displaced students.
"We have a very, very, very good case — on the law and on the facts," Geoghegan said.
Geoghegan said the suit seeking a one-year delay was meant primarily for special-education students — especially those with autism — who need more time both to plan for a switch in schools and adjust to it.
"I don't think that people really understand how much harm is going to be done to these children as a result of the closings," he said.
"It is a traumatic experience for a lot of these students," added Kristine Mayle, a Chicago Teachers Union leader with a background in special education. She called CPS transition plans insufficient, adding, "We have to put this on hold for right now. We cannot do this right now."
CTU is backing the suits financially. "We really are grateful for the support of the Chicago Teachers Union," Geoghegan said. "But this is not a suit on behalf of the Chicago Teachers Union. It is on behalf of the children of this city."
Geoghegan is a well-known lawyer on progressive and union issues, and a news conference on the suit was held Wednesday at his Loop offices. He said he would use the findings of CPS hearing officers, 13 of whom recommended against the closings, as legal ammunition.
Others have pressed the civil-rights argument with federal education officials, citing how most of the closings hit minority neighborhoods, but this is the first federal suit to argue against the CPS closings on those grounds.
"We have a shared responsibility to do everything we can to ensure a bright future for every child," said CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. "And, yet these lawsuits demonstrate that union leadership is committed to a status quo that is failing too many of our kids. Thousands of children in underutilized schools are being cheated out of the resources they need to succeed. It's time to give these children the opportunity to attend higher-performing welcoming schools and put them on a path to thrive."
The Board of Education is expected to vote on the closings May 22. Geoghegan said he would seek a preliminary injunction against the closings, but not before next week's vote. "We think it's important to give the board a chance to do the right thing," he said, adding that he urged board members to read both suits before casting their votes.
Chicago is named as a co-defendant, as "the board is essentially a poodle of the City of Chicago," Geoghegan said, adding that tax-increment-finance-district funds could be used to keep schools open.