Detroit unions sue over deplorable school conditions

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The Detroit Public Schools' fiscal and building conditions have left Detroit students, teachers and parents exposed to dangerous environments that will cause serious and irreparable harm to their health, safety and welfare, and to students' educational opportunities, according to a lawsuit filed Jan. 28 by the Detroit Federation of Teachers, its affiliated state and national unions, and several parents. The suit is asking the court to compel the Detroit Public Schools and Emergency Manager Darnell Earley to repair all existing building code violations, create an appropriately funded capital plan to bring schools up to 21st-century standards, remove Earley and restore local control of the school district.

The DFT, AFT Michigan, the American Federation of Teachers, DFT Interim President Ivy Bailey and several parents filed the complaint in Michigan's Third Circuit Court in Detroit. The DFT is operating under a voluntary administratorship by the AFT.

The suit says the Detroit Public Schools and Emergency Manager Earley have allowed schools to deteriorate to a crisis point, forcing students "to spend their young lives in deplorable surroundings, risking their health and safety in the process, and imposing on students and their teachers an atmosphere that interferes with their securing a minimally sufficient education." The complaint lists some of the conditions in Detroit's schools, which include black mold, bacteria, freezing cold or overly hot classroom temperatures, rodent and insect infestations, exposed wiring and falling debris.

"Educators and parents have been raising the red flag for years about dangerous school conditions, only to be snubbed, ignored and disrespected by DPS and the emergency managers, including Earley. The state has brought the school district to its knees, and now it's time to give up the reins," said DFT Interim President Ivy Bailey. "Detroit teachers should be commended for bringing these problems to light. They work so hard despite the poor conditions and make so many sacrifices to give their kids a great education."

Shoniqua Kemp, whose two children attend Osborn High School, said, "My children go to a school that has no working water fountains, boarded-up windows, excessively hot temperatures and overcrowded classes. Like other parents, I feel ignored by a school district that doesn't seem to care. I will continue to fight for my children and for every other Detroit student and teacher."

AFT President Randi Weingarten, who recently toured Cody High School, said, "We send mixed messages to our children when we tell them that a great education is the gateway to a bright future yet make them sit for hours every day in abysmal, often dangerous classroom conditions. No one should ever risk getting sick or injured just for walking into a school. Detroit public schools should be places where parents want to send their children, teachers want to teach and kids want to attend and learn."

Weingarten noted that this suit is similar to one the United Federation of Teachers in New York City brought in the 1990s. There the union won a court remedy to bring New York City public school buildings up to code.

For nearly seven years, DPS has been controlled by four state-appointed emergency managers. The complaint alleges that DPS is in worse shape than before it was taken over by the state 15 years ago. Fiscally, the district faces a $515 million debt, and it may be unable to make payroll by April 2016.

The suit contends teachers have brought the deplorable conditions to the attention of the state. A Spain Elementary-Middle School teacher, for example, filed a complaint with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration in October 2015 about the dangers of inhaling mold from the gym. DPS said it would fix the problem within 15 days and MIOSHA closed the investigation, yet DPS did nothing and the mold remains there today. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan ordered health and safety inspections of all DPS schools and, on Jan. 20, 2016, released the first report, on 11 schools. Cody High School was one of the worst, with 30 building code violations. Spain was found to have possible diffusion of mold spores throughout the building. In fact, the suit says, Earley recently admitted that he knew about the conditions at Spain and throughout DPS, and that he told Spain school workers to just avoid using the mold-infested gym.

The complaint concludes: "The state of DPS facilities create terrible obstacles to students' learning and teachers' teaching—obstacles that are difficult to overcome even with the tremendous perseverance of Detroit students and the valiant efforts of teachers to teach. However, asking a child to learn or a teacher to instruct in classrooms with steam coming from their mouth due to the cold in the classroom, in vermin-infested rooms, with ceiling tiles falling from above, with buckets to catch the rainwater falling from above, or in buildings that are literally making them sick, is more than what is legally or constitutionally tolerable."

"This is far from the provision of a minimally adequate education as the U.S. and Michigan constitutions require," the complaint states. Is it any wonder that DPS students, given these conditions, as well as the other effects of austerity and poverty, have some of the worst achievement results in the country?"

The plaintiffs are asking the court for the following:

  • Compel DPS and Earley to conduct periodic and systemic inspections of all school buildings that they know present serious hazards, and fix all existing building code violations.
  • Compel DPS and Earley to investigate complaints filed by parents and teachers about unsafe, hazardous school conditions.
  • Compel DPS and Earley to set up an appropriately funded capital plan to be able to bring all Detroit public schools up to 21st-century standards.
  • Remove state-appointed Earley and restore local control over DPS.
  • Continue court jurisdiction over the matter to ensure the defendants are taking steps to remedy the problems.

[AFT press release]