MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Happy St. Patrick's Day everybody. Coming up, we're going to take a closer look at those roadside memorials, public tributes to victims of urban violence. But first, many American school systems are struggling with ways to educate special needs students, as well as kids who are deemed disruptive. Often that task falls to so-called alternative schools. These institutions are supposed to meet the same educational standards that govern other public schools. But the American Civil Liberties Union says that's not happening at one alternative school in Atlanta. The group charges Community Education Partners, the private firm that runs the facility with offering a substandard education and with treating children in a way that borders on abuse. So the ACLU has filed a class-action lawsuit against the company. Here to discuss this are Emily Chiang, an attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, and Patti Welch, a plaintiff in this suit. Her son Terry is enrolled in the Atlanta Alternative School. Welcome to you both.
Ms. PATTI WELCH (Plaintiff): You're welcome.
Ms. EMILY CHIANG (Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program): Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: Emily, if you could start. What are the grounds for this lawsuit against the Atlanta Public Schools and the for-profit Community Education Partners which runs the school at issue in this case.
Ms. CHIANG: Our primary claim is that under the state constitution of Georgia, all students are entitled to a free adequate public education, and from what we have seen at the school and from what we have heard from parents like Ms. Welch, that is plainly not the case at the CEP school. Moreover, the Atlanta Public School System has, as you've mentioned, contracted out its educational obligation to these students to a private for-profit company at a rate of seven million dollars a year, and we're also claiming that CEP has failed to live up to its obligations under that contract and the Atlanta Public School System has done nothing to make sure that the terms of that contract are enforced.
MARTIN: What are some of the specific practices that you feel show that the school is not only not doing its job, but not meeting its obligations under the law?
Ms. CHIANG: I think the school is practically a school in name only. It's the only school I've ever heard of, for example, that has an absolute policy of not assigning children homework. This is because they believe it's a security concern. Children are not permitted to bring books or backpacks - for example, if you are a girl and you have your period, you're not even allowed to bring a tampon with you. All of the children are also treated to highly unreasonable and humiliating searches each and every day. These kids not only go through a metal detector, but they're patted down, some of them spread eagle against a wall every day. All of them have the soles of their feet rubbed to make sure there's nothing in their socks. If you're a girl, staff members rub the scalps of their heads to make sure there's nothing in their hair. You know, it's an absolutely appalling search process that treats these children more like adult convicted felons than like students who are there to learn.
MARTIN: We expect to hear from a representative of CEP later. For scheduling reasons, we were not able to get you all together, but briefly, it's my understanding that they argue that materials are not sent home, as you said, for security reasons, but that the learning takes place there in the building. And secondly, that on the search question, they say that it's the same searches that travelers go through every day when they go through the airport. What do you say to that?
Ms. CHIANG: So my thought on that quickly is I think if they subjected the traveling public at airports to the sort of search process at CEP, no one would ever get on their flights and all of the airlines and TSA would have a huge lawsuit on their hands.
MARTIN: Patti Welch, if we could hear from you? Why is your son Terry enrolled at this school? As I understand it he's a tenth grader there now?
Ms. WELCH: Yes he is.
MARTIN: Why is he enrolled there?
Ms. WELCH: He got in a few altercations, fights, in the previous that it was located in, in Douglas County. And we moved to Atlanta because at that time when he was fighting they wanted to expel him from school, and so I waived his tribunal and for him to go to alternative schools. So when he transferred from the alternative school at Douglas County he had to go to the one in Atlanta.
MARTIN: What has been your experience there?
Ms. WELCH: Well, I can't get anybody to return my calls. When I enrolled him, I wanted to make sure Patrick was in school, because I was concerned that he may, you know, not go to school because he had started complaining about it very early.
MARTIN: What's he complain about?
Ms. WELCH: He said well all we do is crossword puzzles all day, and we're treated like prisoners. We're patted down. And I was concerned about the fact that they didn't get any homework. I couldn't get a status about how well he was doing or what credits he had already gained from being there, and he just was not motivated at all, and they never call my work. They call my home. And if he's at home and he's skipping school, I wouldn't get it because he can erase caller ID. They just don't live up to their promises.
MARTIN: And when you say to them look my son says he's not doing any actual work, what do they say?
Ms. WELCH: Oh they say, well we do give them work, and they did admit to not having the same qualifications as the regular schools had. They said they do their best to make sure they provide the education that children need, but I haven't seen that thus far.
MARTIN: I also should mention that the Atlanta Public Schools has issued a statement saying that they are disturbed by the allegations contained in the complaint and will thoroughly investigate them - that every child deserves a quality public education and that Atlanta Public Schools strives to provide that. And they also say they're not going to have any further comment while this litigation is in process. I have to assume, Emily Chiang, that the reason ACLU took this case is that you also believe there is a larger issue here.
Ms. CHIANG: Absolutely.
MARTIN: You can't sort of investigate every complaint in every school system around the country, so what is the larger issue that you want people to take from this or to draw from this issue, this case?
Ms. CHIANG: I think there are actually two. The first one is, as you mentioned, there seems to be an increasing trend where not just school districts, but government entities in general, are trying to privatize what were traditionally essential government functions. And the danger there is a real lack of accountability where the school district or the government agency says, oh well we're not responsible. You know, we have this company under contract now and the company says, well we're not the government. You know, we're just a private contractor. We're just doing, you know, what we're being told to do. And then you end up with an enormous outlay of taxpayer dollars, seven million dollars a year here, in this case, with no one really being held accountable to the school children of Atlanta.
The second sort of bigger national issue that we really wanted to focus on is the increasing use of schools to fill the criminal justice system. And I think what is happening at the CEP school is a prime example of this.
MARTIN: What are you hoping will come out of this lawsuit, Ms. Welch?
Ms. WELCH: I'm hoping that they would revamp the system, analyze each kid to see if they really were going to a school like that, because actually the kids lose hope - because the Atlanta school said to my son, well he probably would have never qualify to go to regular school, and actually he hasn't done anything so detrimental to even have him in that school. And he hasn't been a problem since he's been at the school he's at now, which is more prison-like than it was in Douglas County.
MARTIN: What are your plans for him?
Ms. WELCH: Well, I called the school to see what the plans were for him, to see if we could get him back in regular school. I sent a letter to Atlanta Board of Education asking them to put him back. Additionally, if I don't hear from them, at 16, I'm able to put him in an independent high school.
MARTIN: I see, and that's what you're planning to do.
Ms. WELCH: Yes.
MARTIN: Emily Chiang, what are you hoping will come out of this lawsuit should you prevail?
Ms. CHIANG: I think our hope is that the Atlanta Public School System and CEP will take a serious look inside their organizations and ask how it is that this was permitted to happen and to go about fixing the school. If they were to announce tomorrow that they are going to shut down the school and put all the kids back in regular school, we would be perfectly happy. If they were to announce that they wanted to work with us to hire an expert to completely revamp the alternative school, we would be happy. And of course, if they insist on pursuing litigation then we believe we have the facts and the law on our side.
MARTIN: Emily Chiang is an attorney with the ACLU which filed a class-action suit against the Atlanta Public Schools. She joined us from our New York bureau. And plaintiff Patti Welch, her son Terry attends the school at issue in suit. She joined us on the phone from her office in Atlanta. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Ms. WELCH: Thank you for having me.
Ms. CHIANG: Thank you.
MARTIN: We had hoped to hear from Randall Richardson, the CEO of Community Education Partners. He had assured us that he would be with us this morning to answer these charges. He'd previously assured us that he had no problem meeting with any of the other parties in this case, but for some reason he's unavailable now. We do hope we will hear from him at some point in the future.