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Parents to Sue Government for School's Collapse

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Parents to Sue Government for School's Collapse

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Parents to Sue Government for School's Collapse

Parents to Sue Government for School's Collapse

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Parents are still standing in the ruins of Juyuan Middle School in Sichuan province and asking what went wrong. In a meeting Friday, they discussed suing the local education bureau. But there's no guarantee that the parents will find justice under the communist-controlled legal system.

MICHELLE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michelle Norris.

It's been nearly three weeks since the devastating earthquake in China. Schools all over Sichuan Province were reduced to rubble, killing students. We reported from one middle school that completely collapsed in Dujiangyang. On the night after the earthquake, my co-host, Melissa Block, visited that school and spoke to some of the grieving parents. There's been no official death toll but there were 900 children enrolled there. Only 13 are known to have survived.

Today, NPR's Rob Gifford returned to middle school. He found that grieving and anger has spurred some parents into action.

ROB GIFFORD: On the tail besides the ruins of the Juyuan School, where half a generation of one small town was blanked out in one fatal minute, that generation's parents are filling out forms.

Mr. JANG SHANG SHIN(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. SHIN: (Speaking foreign language)

GIFFORD: We're suing the government, says Jang Shang Shin, whose 14-year-old son died in the earthquake. We're suing them because the school was so badly built. He points to the other buildings around the school, none of which is damaged.

Mr. DONG CHAM SHUN(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

GIFFORD: Besides him is Dong Cham Shun, who also lost a son. The school was built like tofu, says Dong, because they are all corrupt. They want to put money in their own pocket. I don't care what chance we have of winning our lawsuit, I'm definitely going to do it.

Ms. WANG TONG(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

GIFFORD: A third grieving parent, Wang Tong(ph), has like all the others signed the forms and joined the moved to get a lawyer. Her daughter was a boarding student because she lives in the mountains where the schools are poor. It took her three days to get to town to retrieve her daughter's body. As the government has tried to develop the Chinese legal system to give people some recourse for their grievances other than coming out onto the street, Chinese people have began to take hold of it in all areas of life, though that is no guarantee that in a system where the communist party still controls the courts they'll get anywhere with their lawsuit. But meanwhile, other parents are taking a more direct approach with their complaints.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GIFFORD: Across the basketball court from the collapsed school, a meeting is taking place. The building is undamaged and inside is a school hall packed with angry parents. They're listening to three local officials who are flanked by police officers and trying to explain the situation.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GIFFORD: We're in the meeting here. The police are trying to kick us out and the people are saying that they want us to stay.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GIFFORD: Okay people are pushing me to the front here at meeting in the education bureau and insisting that I stay in the meeting and...

(Soundbite of crowd)

GIFFORD: Well, the officials here, I don't think they're in any immediate physical danger, but they are under complete verbal authority, no physical dangers yet, but they're under verbal assault from the very angry parents of the children who are standing up one after the other to hold their photos of their children had criticize the local officials.

A man is waving a picture of his daughter (unintelligible) he's holding it in the face of the official here. And it's really a very angry scene. I don't know quite where this is going.

Where it was going in the end today, despite all the anger, despite all the lawsuits, was nowhere. It was ugly and it was angry. But suddenly a larger deployment of policemen appeared near the door. The police inside the rooms started politely but firmly to move me towards the exit, and soon the meeting broke up. The response of the Beijing government to the Sichuan earthquake has been praised by almost everyone - at home and abroad. And the disaster has brought a unity and compassion from the ordinary Chinese people that many thought had disappeared.

But the earthquake has also revealed some of the problems of a one-party state constructing a modern nation at high speed. And has also shown once again the limits of dissent.

Rob Gifford, NPR news, Dujiangyang, China.

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