An 8th grader had to teach a math class for a month because Detroit schools were so understaffed, lawsuit alleges
A lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday against Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and other state education officials paints an abysmal picture of schooling within the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), the state's largest public-school district that serves nearly 50,000 students.
Filed on behalf of seven black and Latino students who attend five of the lowest performing schools in Detroit, the suit describes "slum-like conditions" at the schools, "lacking the most basic educational opportunities." They also serve more than 97% low-income students of color.
Because of these conditions, the suit argues, students remain "separate and unequal" and can't attain "the level of literacy necessary to function," in addition to proficiency in other subjects. As such, the suit alleges the district violates their due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
"For years, classrooms and campuses have been unable to satisfy minimal state health and safety standards, let alone deliver basic education," the suit reads.
“We are concerned with the literacy levels of all children in Michigan,” State Superintendent Brian Whiston told Business Insider in an email. “However, we have not received the lawsuit yet and cannot speak directly to its claims.”
A spokesperson from the Michigan Department of Technology, Management, and Budget said it doesn't respond to pending litigation, and the office of the governor did not respond to Business Insider's requests for comment.
Specific allegations in the suit range from a lack of teachers and supplies to classroom temperatures that induced fainting and vermin infestations.
For instance, none of the plaintiffs can take his or her books home from school, making homework nearly impossible. Many students at the schools must also share books, often damaged beyond readability. Some books are even older than the students reading them, according to the suit.
Many schools also lack basic supplies, like paper, pencils and even toilet paper, the suit alleges. Wealthier schools in the area either donate these items, or teachers purchase them out of pocket, according to the suit.
The suit also alleges a deficiency in clean and safe classroom space to accompany the dwindling supplies. As many as 50 students sit in some classrooms, elbow-to-elbow or on the floor, according to the suit. As a result, classrooms, with either no or minimal air conditioning, can reach as hot as 90 degrees. At Hamilton Academy, a charter school attended by one of the plaintiffs, excessive temperatures caused students and teachers to vomit and faint during the first week of this school year, according to the suit.
In one fourth-grade classroom in a school not attended by any of the plaintiffs but still within the district, a leaking hole in the ceiling created "the lake," as students and teachers refer to the area in their classroom surrounded by yellow caution tape.
Aside from general disrepair, mice, cockroaches, and mold plague classrooms, bathrooms, and other areas of the schools, the suit alleges. At Hamilton, teachers keep Raid on their desks. Students also routinely find bullets, sex toys, and used condoms around the school, according to the suit.
Hiring and maintaining an adequate teaching staff also poses a problem for the district, according to the suit.
Last year, the seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at Hamilton left the school due to frustration about class size and lack of support. After a few failed attempts finding a replacement, the "highest performing" eighth-grade student took over teaching both grade levels for a month, the suit alleges.
"As a direct result of the State's failure," the suit says, proficiency rates at the plaintiff's schools hover around zero for all subjects. Students often struggle to write complete sentences, let alone essays or longer assignments. In one instance, an eleventh grader asked how to spell the word "the."
Despite recent attempts at reform, Detroit schools suffer from some of the worst test scores and graduation rates in the country, not to mention crushing financial difficulty. The new suit comes just eight months after Detroit teachers staged a massive "sickout" during President Barack Obama's visit to the city to call attention to the unsafe and unhealthy conditions across the district.
In June, Snyder, Michigan's governor, signed a $617 million bailout which split the system in two districts: one for tax collection and another for educating new students. Of the funds, $467 million went toward paying off operating debt at the former and $150 provided the start-up cost for the latter, debt-free district.
The package, however, had its critics.
Detroit school board president Herman Davis told The Detroit News at the time that the legislation eliminated "the rights of kids in Detroit to an equal education" and was "messing around with things like uncertified teachers and taking technology out of the classroom."
The suit against Snyder and others does allege that allowing non-certified instructors to teach inflamed the already problematic environment within DPSCD.
The plaintiffs seek relief in the form of classes focused on bringing students up to proficiency, literacy screening to prevent them from falling behind in the first place, and state monitoring of the district as well as reimbursement for costs associated with the suit.
Editor's note: This post was updated at 9/16 at 9:18 a.m. to reflect Brian Whiston's statement.