No Class for 45,000 Detroit Kids as Teachers Protest Rat-Infested Schools

The educators say children shouldn't have to endure broken pipes, leaking ceilings, and other unsafe conditions.
An abandoned Detroit school. (Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)
Jan 20, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

President Obama headed to Detroit on Wednesday to visit the North American International Auto Show and applaud the progress the auto industry has made since the global financial crisis, when major automakers teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The Motor City’s students, who attend schools with leaking ceilings, black mold, broken toilets, dead rodents, huge classes, and a lack of academic resources, were probably feeling less celebratory.

On Wednesday hundreds of educators working in Detroit Public Schools staged a sickout to protest the horrific conditions, which they—and the kids—have been forced to endure for years. The teachers’ protest of the dilapidated buildings and disenfranchisement of Detroit’s children resulted in the closure of 88 schools, roughly 90 percent of the city's campuses. Nearly 45,000 students had to stay home.

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The Detroit Federation of Teachers has asked members to help distribute leaflets outside the auto show on Wednesday.

“As the city celebrates this ‘ultra-luxury’ automobile event, Detroit’s public schools are in a state of crisis,” wrote the union on its website. “Children are struggling in schools with hazardous environmental and safety issues. Educators have made significant sacrifices for the good of students, including taking pay cuts and reductions in health benefits.”

The union also hopes attendees will support a petition it launched on Friday.

“From serious health and safety hazards such as mold, asbestos, and mice infestations, to classrooms with no heat, these unacceptable conditions have been ignored. The floor of the gym at one school has buckled from water damage and is covered in black mold. In at least one school, classrooms even have bullet holes in the walls,” reads the petition.

It goes on to note that educators, custodians, counselors, and other staff members “are expected to teach in overcrowded classrooms without textbooks or support. Students with health issues are suffering due to the lack of school nurses.”

The petition, which has garnered nearly 12,000 signatures, is addressed to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit’s unelected emergency manager, Darnell Earley. Earley was previously the emergency manager in Flint, an hour north of Detroit.

Earley was in charge in 2014 when the catastrophic decision was made to stop sourcing tap water from Lake Huron and switch to using corrosive water from the Flint River to save $500 million over two years. That decision has resulted in a federal state of emergency being declared in Flint because of the presence of lead in the water.

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“No child in Flint should have to drink lead in water and no child in Detroit should have to learn under such conditions,” David Hecker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers–Michigan, said last week after touring four schools with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Duggan expressed dismay over seeing a dead mouse in a trap at one campus and said some of the conditions he saw were “deeply disturbing,” reported The Detroit News.

The sick-out is the second one staged by Detroit teachers in January and comes on the heels of a successful social media campaign to raise awareness of the problems in the schools. Over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend the hashtag #SupportDPSTeachers trended on Twitter in the United States as educators in the Motor City posted dozens of shocking images of building code and safety violations at schools.

Life Inside Detroit Public Schools

In Detroit, schools have been left to crumble. Watch this heartbreaking video, then sign our petition to fully and fairly fund Detroit schools.

Posted by AFT - American Federation of Teachers on Friday, January 15, 2016

The problems plaguing the public schools are not new. In 2009, the first unelected emergency manager, Robert Bobb, was appointed to run the city’s schools, which were burdened by a $259 million budget deficit and declining enrollment. The shocking state of the city’s public schools was put into the national spotlight in 2011, with Bobb’s controversial decision to shutter half the city’s schools to cut the deficit.

That same year, Dan Rather Reports aired “A National Disgrace,” a two-hour special on the dismal state of education in Detroit. Rather had spent much of the previous two years filming students, parents, teachers, and other community members. The program put conditions in the schools—including a warehouse of unused motorcycles when kids didn’t have textbooks—on display.

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According to the Detroit Public Schools website, the budget deficit is $46.5 million, but the district is also facing $515 million in legal liabilities. In his State of the State address on Tuesday night, Snyder asked the state legislature to split the district in two and warned that bankruptcy could be on the horizon.

On Wednesday Detroit Public Schools spokesperson Michelle Zdrodowski told reporters, "The only way we will be able to address the bigger issues is through an investment by the Michigan Legislature in the students and families of DPS,” reported the Detroit Free Press. “Obtaining this support becomes more difficult with each sickout that happens," said Zdrodowski.

While the wrangling over how to solve the woes in Detroit continues, the video below, which takes us inside a school in the city, serves as a heartbreaking reminder of the real victims of the crisis: children.