In Chicago, local student activists support federal civil rights complaints

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Benjamin Herold for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Students and organizers from local groups Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union joined grassroots activist groups from across the country Thursday in decrying “top-down” school closings and school turnarounds as a violation of students’ civil rights.

“We are letting the School Reform Commission know that they are closing the schools which serve communities of color, including Black and Latino youth,” said YUC member Tone Elliot, 18, speaking at a press event in Chicago.

“If [the SRC] denies these kids their constitutional rights, we will mobilize,” added Elliot, a recent graduate of Mastbaum High.

In April, District leadership released a “transformation blueprint” calling for the closure of 40 schools in 2013-14 and 24 more schools over the following four years. Should the SRC move forward with that plan, Elliot said, YUC will join groups from at least half a dozen other cities in filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

District officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Representatives from Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities have either filed or plan to file similar civil rights complaints, said Jitu Brown, a Chicago-based community organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization who helped coordinate Thursday’s press event.

“The goal was to demonstrate national outrage over a philosophy of school reform that is time-tested and has failed,” said Brown, citing Chicago’s recent history of school closings, school turnarounds, and school phase-outs.

“We want sustainable school reform, and we want communities involved in their own schools.”

The groups involved in Thursday’s event demanded a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Assistant Secretary of the Office of Civil Rights Russlynn Ali.

YUC’s Elliot said the similarities of the reform efforts taking place across the country struck a chord.

“We have so much in common,” Elliot said. “We’re recognizing that there is a national agenda to privatize education.”

Thursday’s threatened action comes on the heels of a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month by parents and District 1199C Union of Health Care Employees hoping to halt the planned closure of Harrison Elementary, one of eight schools the SRC has already approved closing for the 2012-13 school year.