School Climate & Safety

Detroit Parents Join Lawsuit to Fix ‘Deplorable’ School Buildings

By Sarah Tully — February 18, 2016 2 min read
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Teachers’ union leaders may have taken the lead on last month’s lawsuit against poor conditions at Detroit Public Schools. But parents lined up behind them to sue to get repairs to their children’s schools.

Two of the parents, who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, talked to Education Week about why it was important for them to join the lawsuit, even while their children remain in schools there. Teachers have held repeated sickouts, causing school closures, in recent months, mostly over the poor building conditions.

“Our kids deserve better,” said Shoniqua Kemp, a parent who has two children in the district and one who graduated. “No one was being heard. And we’re the ones being served, but we’re not being heard. So it was time to speak on a different volume.”

Christopher Robinson, the parent of 5th and 10th grade students, said it was a “no brainer” to sue the district. “The public needs to know that there are parents who are actively involved, and we care,” Robinson said. “We don’t want to see our children in these conditions.”

The issue is personal for both Kemp and Robinson, as their children have been directly affected by the poor conditions outlined in the lawsuit.

Kemp says her 14-year-old daughter is susceptible to heatstroke, which she believes is often brought on by the extreme temperatures in the classrooms. Her high school sometimes has broken toilets and water faucets.

Michelle Zdrodowski, Detroit Public Schools executive director of communications, said in an email that the previous problems with Osborn High School’s boiler controls were fixed and they are now “operating as normal.”

Robinson’s 5th grade daughter goes to Spain Elementary School, where the gymnasium had significant damage from roof leaks and is now sealed off. Teachers sometimes crack the windows when classrooms get too hot, even in the winter, risking squirrels climbing in, Robinson said.

“All the schools are deplorable. The kids and teachers shouldn’t be subject to that prolonged nonsense,” Robinson said.

Both parents acknowledge that it is a bit awkward to sue the schools where their children attend. But they say it is worth it.

“The truth is the truth, and it has to be told,” said Kemp, whose two children are at Osborn High School. “The truth is horrific, and there are things that need to be fixed. In order for things to be fixed, people need to be aware of them. I’m proud to be able to do this.”

Robinson said: “I expect the court to require that the district fix the schools. We’re just looking for these issues to be resolved.”

The Detroit school system recently launched a webpage to report on building repairs to help keep the public informed of the progress.

“Detroit Public Schools places a top priority on creating a good working and learning environment for our students and staff,” Zdrodowski said in a statement. “As such we work every day to ensure that our school buildings are safe, clean and in good repair.”

Since the lawsuit was filed Jan. 28, things have gotten more complicated in the Detroit schools. Darnell Earley, the district’s emergency manager, announced that he would leave the job Feb. 29, which was among the actions being sought in the lawsuit.

Earley last week said more than $50 million is needed to address immediate maintenance problems at the schools and that the financially strapped district is expected to run out of its reserves in April.

Also, Spain Elementary School recently got donations worth $500,000 from Lowe’s Companies Inc. during a segment on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where singer Justin Bieber also pledged money to the school.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.