Groups Opposed to Chicago School Closures Seek U.N. Intervention, Claim Human Rights Violations

By Patrick Goodenough | July 26, 2013 | 4:47am EDT

Protesters react to plan to close dozens of city schools at a rally in the Capitol rotunda in Springfield, Ill., (AP File Photo)

( – Advocacy groups opposing the planned shutdown of 49 schools in Chicago are turning to the United Nations for help, urging U.N. officials to investigate and take steps to prevent human rights abuses which, they say, will result from the closures.

In the latest in a number of appeals by U.S. civic organizations to the world body, the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights this week submitted a letter to the U.N. human rights apparatus in Geneva, asking that it “investigate and take preventative measures to address the potential domestic and international human rights violations that may result from these school closings.”

The action comes alongside two federal lawsuits seeking injunctions to block the closure of the institutions by the nation’s third-largest public school district before the new school year begins.

Chicago Public Schools says there are currently some 500,000 available classroom seats in the district but only 400,000 students. It argues that millions of dollars saved in shutting down schools deemed to be “underutilized” can be used to improve education for students at the schools to which they will be relocated.

Opponents of the move say it will disproportionately affect minority students, and worry about the risk to students’ safety as they are compelled to cross gangs’ turf boundaries to reach their new schools.

The Midwest Coalition addressed its submission – known in U.N. parlance as a “letter of allegation” – to three U.N. rights specialists: an Indian whose mandate covers the “right to education,” a Hungarian expert responsible for “minority issues,” and a Kenyan dealing with “contemporary forms of racism.”

It justified making the appeal to the trio on the basis of their mandate to “examine, monitor, and advise and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries.” The U.S. is a party to treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

In brief, the advocacy groups argued that:

--Eighty percent of the almost 30,000 children affected by the closures are African-American, and that disabled children “will be forced to move to new schools without any guarantee that their special needs will be met.”

--The closures “place children at greater risk of violence and death,” since “[m]any Chicago neighborhoods are gang-controlled” and students will have to cross gang lines to reach their new schools.

--The movement of students from the closing schools will increase class sizes in the receiving schools, thus eroding the quality of education.

The coalition also alleged that Chicago education authorities had not taken opposition from parents, residents and teachers into account, despite direct pleas, objections aired during public hearings and street demonstrations.

“If a governmental body can simply ignore the views of the people they claim to represent, the right to participate in governmental affairs is meaningless.”

The U.N. says “letters of allegation” to its rights experts usually remain confidential, as do subsequent U.N. communications with the relevant government authorities, until all the documents in a particular case are published in an annual report to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC).

In this case however, a copy of the Mideast Coalition’s letter was posted online by Chicago community development consultant Valerie Leonard, who drew attention to it on her Twitter account on Wednesday.

Once a complaint containing “reliable and credible information” is received, the U.N. explains, the experts take up the matter with the country concerned, “in order to induce the national authority to undertake the necessary investigations.”

Attempts to get comment from Chicago Public Schools were unsuccessful Thursday.

Appealing to the U.N.

The Midwest Coalition comprises 56 organizations, legal service providers and university centers. Its submission to the U.N. was also supported by various other groups, including the Chicago Teachers Union’s human rights committee; and by individual teachers, parents and others, among whom the controversial retired University of Illinois education professor Bill Ayers stands out.

This isn’t the first time the coalition has made a submission to the U.N. about issues of concern at home.

Earlier occasions include testimony that resulted in recommendations by the U.N. Committee Against Torture urging the U.S. government to investigate and prosecute members of the Chicago police department alleged to have tortured African-American criminal suspects in the 1980s and 1990s.

Last December the coalition filed two submissions with a U.N. committee that oversees countries’ compliance with the ICCPR, one relating to what it calls “systemic mistreatment of incarcerated individuals” and the other to instances where juveniles are sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The ICCPR committee is preparing to review U.S. compliance with the treaty during a session in the fall.

Other recent entreaties to the U.N. rights apparatus by civic organizations in the U.S. include an appeal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People last September for the HRC to investigate “racially-discriminatory election laws” in the U.S., especially those affecting people with felony convictions.

Months earlier a NAACP delegation had addressed the HRC on voter-ID and other laws. As reported at the time, its audience included representatives of countries whose citizens have long been denied a free vote, including Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this month Rainbow Push Coalition president Jesse Jackson called for the HRC to investigate the Trayvon Martin shooting to see “whether the U.S. is upholding its obligations under international human rights laws and treaties.”

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