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Michigan students sue school district for violating their 'right to read'

In a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, students whose reading skills are below grade level are suing the state of Michigan and their school district. If successful, the lawsuit could spawn others nationwide.   

By Staff writer / July 13, 2012

Students are suing the state of Michigan and their Detroit-area school district for violating their “right to read.”

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The class-action lawsuit appears to be the first of its kind, and potentially signals a new wave of civil rights litigation in the United States to enforce laws intended to boost academic achievement, education law experts say.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed what it has dubbed the “right to read” lawsuit on behalf of the nearly 1,000 students in the impoverished district.

Two-thirds of 4th-graders and three-quarters of 7th-graders in the Highland Park school district are not proficient on state reading tests; 90 percent of 12th-graders fail the reading portion of the final state test administered in high school, according to the complaint. Nearly 100 percent of the district’s students are African-American.

“A child who cannot read will be disenfranchised in our society and economy for a lifetime,” said ACLU of Michigan executive director Kary Moss in a written statement explaining the case. The lawsuit follows a “careful process of investigation that has made clear that none of those [education officials] charged with the care of these children … have done their jobs.”

One of the plaintiffs is a student referred to as S.D. An 8th-grader who has been in the district since 1st grade, his reading proficiency level is at a 3rd-grade level at best, the complaint alleges. Yet he “has never received any individualized reading intervention or remedial instruction from an adult” in the district.

According to state law, students who do not score satisfactorily on state reading tests in 4th or 7th grade “shall be provided special assistance” to bring skills to grade level within 12 months.

In addition to many examples of students whose specific literacy needs appear to be neglected, the suit cites general conditions in the district that interfere with their ability to learn – including a lack of books, terrible record keeping on individual student achievement, inadequate heat in the classrooms, and bathrooms in a state of filth and disrepair.

The lawsuit asks the court to require the district to improve such conditions and provide quality implementation of research-based approaches to bring up students’ literacy.

Highland Park’s two K-8 schools and one high school have recently come under the jurisdiction of an emergency manager appointed by the state to address the district’s $11 million deficit. The state’s most recent plan is to find a charter-school operator to run the district.

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education said officials had not received the complaint so it was too soon to comment. Efforts to reach the manager of the district were not successful.


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