Sarah Cheever, '07's Essay in Dissent Magazine on DCPS
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Posted by: Joe Libertelli
From Dissent Magazine, Spring 2010 http://www.dissentmagazine.org/
Lost and Found
By Sarah Cheever
Michelle Rhee, the school chancellor of the District of Columbia Public School System (DCPS), is standing behind me in the ladies room of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. I start to sweat. I feel as if I’m standing next to Elvis, an impeccably dressed, petite, Blackberry-carrying Elvis. Hailed as the educator who will save Washington’s schools, singled out for praise by Barack Obama, Rhee is a celebrity.
Our restroom proximity is due to the hearing we are both attending that day, where DCPS will outline its progress in compliance with a class action consent decree. Rhee sits at the large oak counsel table before the judge, while I and the other special education attorneys, attorneys who represent parents who sue DCPS for failing to provide their children with needed special education and related services, sit in the gallery. I am barely shouting distance from her in the large courtroom. Seeing her in the ladies room is the closest I have gotten to her.
The district entered into a consent decree after two class action suits were filed against DCPS for its failure to hold timely due process hearings (proceedings where parents and educational decision makers sue the schools) and to implement decisions made by hearing officers. As part of the consent decree, DCPS reports regularly on its progress to a mix of DCPS personnel, special education attorneys, and other interested parties at Blackman/Jones hearings (Blackman and Jones being the names of the combined class action suits) in U.S. District Court. Hence the presence of Rhee, whom I have yet to see at the informal due process hearings where DCPS’s failure to provide special education and related services are litigated child by child in an old school building by the Navy Yard in southeast Washington.
At a recent Blackman/Jones hearing, the deputy chancellor of special education, Dr. Richard Nyankori, referred to the children who are not being reached yet by the lauded DCPS reforms as numberless "pockets of despair." Attorney General Peter Nickles, DCPS’s legal representative in these proceedings is less circumspect. In expressing his opinions about DCPS’s work to serve its students, he threw up his arms and stated, "Alleluia."
As someone who knows firsthand the children Nyankori might be thinking of, I am filled with an unholy anger about the self-righteousness of those who run the school system. These "pockets of despair" include my clients, individuals who are often devastated by the failures of the Washington public education system.
One of the first students I worked with was an eighteen-year-old named Reggie, a learning disabled student set on receiving his high school diploma because that was what he thought his deceased mother would have wanted for him. He tried to re-enroll in school after spending several months in jail. He was not told where to return to school and received no education at all for months. We sued. DCPS’s defense was that it was Reggie’s fault he was not enrolled in school, although when he went to register at his neighborhood school, he was escorted off by security because he wasn’t on the school’s rolls.
In the cases I have litigated, it doesn’t matter what the child’s circumstances are. DCPS always argues it is not at fault or should not be held responsible. I had a similar battle on behalf of Mason, a fifteen-year-old who was diagnosed with mental retardation and received special education classes until his middle school years. Then the school miscalculated Mason’s IQ and put him in a large, inclusion classroom. There he was asked to learn ninth-grade material with limited assistance, although he was learning at a third grade level. Functionally a ten-year-old in a class of fifteen- to sixteen-year-olds, Mason was constantly bullied. After a year, Mason was transferred to a special needs classroom, but the school never informed his mother or changed his schedule. Because Mason was in the special needs class and not in the classes on his schedule, the school threatened to report Mason as truant until we took them to court.
I love my work as a lawyer, but I set out neither to be a lawyer nor to sue schools. In high school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City, I was an earnest student. I experimented with religions instead of drugs or alcohol and limited my social life to a few close friends. When I entered Princeton University, I wanted to major in Classics and spend my life translating ancient Greek and Hebrew religious texts.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, began my sophomore year in college and made me want to do something, anything, to help. I volunteered at every 9/11 relief organization I could, dabbled in pre-medical sciences, went to Oklahoma City to talk to their bombing survivors about their 1995 experience, and wrote my senior thesis on spirituality after 9/11. I swapped my Ancient Greek classes for pre-medical sciences, and then switched postgraduate medical program applications for applications to social work schools and law schools. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I wanted to be in an interesting place full of mentors with experience in public service. I ultimately decided to attend the David A. Clarke School of Law, at the University of the District of Columbia—one of the most diverse and legal service-oriented law schools in the nation.
I chose UDC in part because of the extensive legal service requirement. First-year students are required to follow a standard curriculum with a forty-hour community services requirement. Second and third years are required to provide 750 hours of legal services to District of Columbia residents at one of several free legal clinics operated by the law school. In August 2004, I arrived in Washington on the train with a pet guinea pig and a duffel bag, ready to save the world. I fancied that after law school I would become the immigration law version of Atticus Finch, the crusading lawyer of To Kill A Mockingbird.
I was confronted immediately with my own inadequacy and inexperience. My fellow law students were dazzling former community organizers, social workers, and leftist thinkers. They had thoughts about political movements I had never even heard of. I was a writer’s daughter from Manhattan with a degree in religious studies. I had read maybe two issues of the Economist and never listened to National Public Radio. My media worries were about the cancellation of Gilmore Girls. I found myself disoriented in the conversations going on around me and trundled through my first year in near social hibernation. My classmates were friendly and engaging, but I was intimidated, terrified of the very un-New York-like city I found myself in. I wondered if new things were always good things.
Then, in my second year, I met Earl Williams, my first client. He was new to the UDC Legal Clinic. The night before the interview, I had the same knot in my stomach as before college exams. I couldn’t sleep and spent hours getting dressed that morning. Mr. Williams, a man in his late thirties and in poor health, had walked over five miles to meet me. He sat down across from me and wrapped his long fingers around the Styrofoam coffee cup I passed him. He answered my questions about his health and previous legal troubles, what his children did and did not know about his life. We spent the next few months fighting to get him the Social Security benefits he deserved. He had been denied benefits, despite a debilitating terminal illness. The Social Security Administration stated he was not eligible for benefits because of its erroneous belief that he had a drinking problem. I called every doctor he told me about, and each agreed to write a letter saying that the illness was not related to any drinking problem, and that he did not in fact have a drinking problem. Although these letters helped his case, it was Mr. Williams’s haunting account of his illness and its slow devastation of his body and mind that won the day.
I love winning, but it was the moments with Mr. Williams, and those meetings I still have with my clients when I first begin working with them, that made me want to be a public- interest lawyer. When you agree to be someone’s lawyer, you agree to bear witness to at least some part of his or her life. If you are lucky, you get others to pay attention in a way that helps your client.
I do different legal work now from the work I did for Mr. Williams, but the principle behind what I do for children and their families is the same: listen very carefully and then fight with them to get other people to listen too. More often than not I help my clients express things in court that they have already been shouting from the rooftops—my sixteen-year-old can’t read and needs help in all his classes, my toddler freezes in place and needs to be tested, my daughter sees things that aren’t there and needs counseling. When I help clients advocate for their children to receive special education now, whether it is in a meeting or in a courtroom, those people who have been brushing them off are forced to hear what my clients have to say.
THE "POCKET OF DESPAIR" in my day come, not from the circumstances I see my clients in, but from the failure of a large and often dedicated educational system to act consistently and responsibly on their behalf. That responsibility starts with substituting questions for generalizations. Questions like, how many children are in these pockets of despair, and what are their disabilities? How old are they, and how old will they be when they get services? Where will they go? It is these questions, and the tendency of their answers to show up at my office in human form, that put me in conflict with the school system Rhee runs and give me pause when I hear through the news that schools in Washington are improving.
I was nineteen on the day two planes hit the World Trade Center, and killed nearly three thousand people. I paced my dorm, and jumped at the chance to staff a campus phone bank to provide information to survivors. But our phones only rang with volunteers calling to give blood and provide services. We all waited for the survivors to come out of the building. What I remember most from that day are the false reports that hundreds had been saved in an air bubble under the city and would be rescued.
I felt that we counted each life lost that day, and that each loss was unbearable. I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. Months later, on the eve of my twentieth birthday, I had the opportunity to work an all-night shift at the recovery center at St. Paul’s, providing food and help to the people who had come from far and wide to clean up the ruins of New York’s Twin Towers. Around 2:00 a.m. I took a walk outside to repair the makeshift memorials and refresh the candles that ringed the church. I ran into two men in their thirties who were putting up an American flag. "Did you lose someone?" I asked. "No one I knew," one of them answered, "but all of those people were my people."
In the years since 9/11, I have never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer for myself as to why a country with that level of compassion and respect for life can at the same time be so unresponsive to more ordinary tragedy, such as the failure to educate so many of our children. Instead, we seem to focus on fascinating figures like Rhee, what she is doing, what she isn’t doing, what we would do differently, and blur around the hundreds of children who pass in and out of the schools she is responsible for while we are having these debates with ourselves, our magazines, and our news hours. As a lawyer whose clients are schoolchildren and their families, I have the privilege of getting to know and help many of these children who are perhaps less famous but equally compelling, and know that although I am not saving anyone, I do believe that I make it a little harder for the kids I represent to get erased by the educational bureaucracy of Washington. I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to make a living doing it.
Sarah Cheever was born in New York City in 1982 and works in Washington, D.C. as a special education attorney at a small firm. Her op-ed "Attack Brings a Localized Terror" appeared in the Washington Post in October 2004. Names of clients in this article have been changed.