Houston Forward Times

23 July 2014 Written by  Jeffrey L. Boney

HISD Federal Investigation Intensifies: Houston Joins List of Other U.S. Cities Fed Up with School Closures

A spokesperson for the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has confirmed they have notified the Houston Independent School District (HISD) that they would be investigating discrimination claims leveled at them by concerned citizens of the Greater Houston area.

In their response to the complaint filed by community activist Charles X. White, on behalf of several taxpaying citizens of Houston, the OCR responded by letter stating they had "determined that it has jurisdiction, that the complaint was timely filed, and is therefore opening the complaint for investigation."

The OCR went on to say they "clarified your complaint and determined that you are specifically alleging that during the 2013-14 academic school year the HISD discriminated against African American and Hispanic students in its process for determining school closings and/or repurposing of predominantly minority schools (i.e. Dodson Elementary School and Jones High School)."

According to HISD records from 2001 to 2012, at least 75 schools have been closed or re-purposed. Out of those affected schools, four districts consist of 70% African American and Hispanic concentration. At the core of the matter is the policy used to justify these school closings or the repurposing of these urban schools and whether HISD policy was adequately followed.

In the case of Dodson Elementary and Jones High schools, HISD indicated low enrollment as their primary reason to justify closing both schools.

Upon research being performed, it was uncovered that Dodson had a waiting list of over 200 students and the HISD had critical programs removed from Jones High that would have attracted new and zoned students to the school; instead, these actions led to the migration of students from Jones to other schools.

According to the concerned citizens who filed the federal complaint, the decisions made by HISD amounted to unequal treatment to people who are paying the same tax rate as everyone else. Therefore, they felt they had no other choice but to take action and file a formal complaint with the OCR to stop it.

HISD joins the list of six other urban school districts – Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, Detroit and Newark - who are also being investigated by the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. All of these investigations have come as a result of community activists speaking up against the all-too-familiar practice of closing urban schools due to alleged low-performance, low enrollment and other miscellaneous reasons.

The underlying message in each complaint filed by community activists, in each respective city, has been the charge that each school district has disproportionately hurt and in many cases discriminated against minority students by removal of key programs and the closing of urban schools in their communities.

According to research done by a group of community activists, HISD had no substantial or material justifications to close Dodson or Jones, and that is the premise behind the complaint that was filed and the subsequent federal investigation.

Dr. Reba Wright, a former student of Jones High and lead researcher, developed an analytical review of HISD’s data that was used to justify the moves and registered a different conclusion. In a Houston Forward Times (HFT) editorial written in March called "Six Misleading Justifications HISD Is Using to Close Minority Schools," Dr. Wright stated "if HISD had not removed Jones’ Vanguard program (currently known as Carnegie) off campus, Jones’ current enrollment would be 1,030 students."

Charles X. White, a former employee and the person who filed the formal complaint, says that he understands how taxpayers have been misinformed and strategically left out of the information loop as it relates to HISD and their justification for closing schools and removing much-needed programs.

"Our subject matter experts have requested to meet with Superintendent Terry Grier and his administration to discuss all of this information and we have consistently been ignored," says White. "Now that the Office of Civil Rights is involved and a federal investigation has been opened up, they (HISD) can’t ignore us anymore and they definitely can’t ignore the federal government."

White says he has been in constant communication with the Office of Civil Rights department and says that if HISD is found to be in violation the OCR will prescribe the adequate solution.

"We received a written notification on 7/21/2014, from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in regards to our interest in initiating the Early Complaint Resolution (ECR) to try an negotiate a solution to this issue," says White. "While the ECR process is an option for both parties, it is not an option for us. Our team is in agreement with having the OCR follow through with a full investigation of HISD, because taking the ECR route would not include a federal monitoring component that would lead to the findings of HISD being found to be at fault of discrimination."

According to White, the OCR has sent all the updated information to HISD and states that there is an indication two complaints have been filed, not just the one filed by him. White says he is not aware who the other party may be, but is not surprised at the news that another complaint may have been filed.

"Closing schools kills neighborhoods," says White. "Schools are closing in Black communities and schools are being re-purposed while students are being shipped out to other schools that have more academic, career and trade programs instead of offering equal programs at local neighborhood schools."

As it stands, the school board voted in March to close Dodson Elementary by next school year and also voted to re-purpose Jones High into a specialty vocational school without athletics.

The OCR declined to release any other specific details regarding its investigation of HISD, but indicated that their overall goal is to have complaints resolved within 180 days.

The HFT will keep its readers posted on any new developments as they arise.