District Digest: Bills pass and schools may be slashed
This week, barring the national sex scandals, D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson comes out in opposition to the proposal to close 20 public schools in the city, and a bill is in the making to make adults in the District accountable if they fail to report a child sex abuse case.
The city’s plan to close 20 of D.C.’s public schools was the focus of a Council hearing Thursday night, as the public had its first opportunity to weigh in on the issue. Parents, teachers, students, and activists expressed concerns that closing schools would drive more students into charter schools, and others argued for saving particular schools, according to The Washington Post. The change would displace more than 3000 students.
“It is treating a symptom in a way that can only worsen the disease,” said Mary Levy, an education finance lawyer and researcher.
Most of the members seemed to agree with D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan, the Post reported. Because of dwindling enrollment, they see the need for a downsizing of the school system to “concentrate resources” as opposed to operating half-full buildings.
Independent council member David A. Catania used Shaw Middle School as an example of the costs enrollment issues create: the school has 131 students, nine teachers, and employs more than 26 adults total.
Council members also agreed that the chancellor must address the problems driving students to charter schools, the Washington Post reported, as over 40 percent of the District’s students attend charters.
“When we can answer the question as to why our schools are under-enrolled, as to why our parents are making other decisions, as to what we can do to bring our students back to neighborhood schools—then we can be on the road to success,” said Yvette M. Alexander, a Democratic Council member.
The aspect of the plan most protested at the meeting was the closure of Garrison Elementary in Northwest, which is operating at two-thirds capacity, according to The Washington Post. Parents say the school is recovering with the help of a new principal.
PTA officers have created an online petition and media campaign, backed by Council members Jack Evans and Jim Graham. Graham said that if all Garrison students get moved to Seaton, as the plan dictates, that the school would be overcrowded by more than 100 students.
“Doesn’t that send the message that you really don’t want students to stay in DCPS? You want them to go to charter schools?” Graham said.
Henderson said she would listen to concerns and tweak her plans in response, but she has the authority to close the schools without council approval. She said that unless the council wants to spend more money, they must close 20 schools.
D.C. bill expanding requirements for reporting child sex abuse passes
A bill D.C. Council members “tentatively” approved Thursday would hold nearly all adults in the District accountable if they failed to report child sex abuse, according to the Post. Anyone 18 or older with knowledge of or reasonable belief that such a crime has occurred to someone younger than 16 must report it “immediately” to police or Child and Family Services.
Attorneys and ordained ministers are exempt from this law, which can fine violators $300, and victims of sex abuse would not be required to report past abuse. Caregivers, teachers, and other officials would have to pay penalties up to $1,000 in fines and 180 days in jail.
“We are interested in sending a clear message,” said Phil Mendelson, Council Chairman. “This is a bill that simply establishes a policy, that everyone has to report if they know or have reason to believe a child has been sexually abused.”
Mendelson pushed to expand existing reporting laws after reports surfaced that adults at Penn State failed to report signs of abuse, the Post reported. He noted that 18 states have similar regulations.
But there is unease over government overreach and an increase in thinly vetted and false complaints, according to the Washington Post. Council member Kenyan McDuffie expressed concerns that the increase in reports could make proving other cases more challenging.
City budget officials changed their position on the bill in a letter to the Council Thursday. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi said the city would be able to afford the increased caseload, when they expressed hesitance over the additional $2 million over two years the bill would cause.
The bill, which passed unanimously, must be voted on a second time before it reaches Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
Photo through Flickr CC license by Department of Education