While majority of claims dismissed, civil rights aspects of Empower D.C. lawsuit to move forward

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The lawsuit filed against Chancellor Kaya Henderson after the decision to shutter 15 D.C. public schools was  evaluated last week by Judge James E. Boasberg of the District Court. The opinion, released last week, granted partial dismissal of the suit, although some of plaintiff Empower D.C.’s central claims were found to have standing.

The activists filed the lawsuit on behalf of D.C. residents back in March, charging the Henderson and Mayor Vincent Gray with neglecting to take into consideration the rights of poor, disabled, and minority students. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Johnny Barnes, filed the initial complaint that stated that “a local government may not, when it comes to equal access to education, treat some classes of its citizens different than it treats another class.”

D.C. School officials denied allegations of discrimination, claiming that consolidation of many schools, with substantially lower enrollments due to the popularity of charter schools, would not only increase efficiency, but also opportunities for students.

The plaintiffs argue that the policy will disproportionately affect some of the District’s poorest students. The plans “will displace more than 2,700 students,” 93 percent of which are black students and 82 percent are poor, according to activists.

The court ultimately decided that the plaintiffs could not present enough evidence to support their claims. “There is no evidence whatsoever of any intent to discriminate on the part of Defendants,” wrote Boasberg in his opinion on Thursday. “In the end, plaintiffs have failed to allege facts that would sustain the majority of their counts.”

Boasberg did concede that with regard to the civil rights allegations, “some issues at the heart of this case …remain open.” He, however, did not seem to alter his opinion on the possibility of the plaintiffs succeeding in arguing their claims. The judge wrote that there is “no likelihood of ultimate success on the merits,” of the evidence, and that “only targeted discovery” into the matter could result in approval from the court.

Nonetheless, Empower D.C. supporters have not given up and are pleased that the ruling will allow them to pursue their accusations of discrimination. Activists plan on pursuing the litigation, working with the community on collecting evidence, and further developing their civil rights claims.

The court took special care to highlight areas where activists may still make a case. “Plaintiffs may move forward with their civil-rights complaints under the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, and the DCHRA,” wrote Boasberg. In order for Empower D.C. to push forward and possibly come out victorious, it will need to “set forth facts sufficient to open the door.”

Davis Elementary School, one of the 15 schools slated to be closed, is included in the list of institutions visited by students in Georgetown’s D.C. Reads program. Although the coordinators of the program could not be reached for comment, it is evident that the policy extends beyond the bounds of the DCPS system.

In the following weeks, Empower D.C. activists will be taking the steps necessary. Daniel del Pielago, an organizer for the movement, affirmed, “We’re still in the game.”

Photo: Zoe King via Flickr

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