EL Paso Parents File Civil Rights Complaint Against School District

EL PASO, Texas (May 16, 2019) – Two grassroots parents groups filed a Title VI Civil Rights complaint with the federal Department of Education (DOE) against the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD). The parents, represented by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), state that EPISD’s planned closures of Beall and Burleson elementary schools, located in Mexican-American neighborhoods of South Central El Paso, violate their children’s civil rights by relocating them to schools in highly polluted, unsafe regions.

In January, EPISD voted to close Beall and Burleson for the 2019-20 academic year, which will force students to relocate to Douglass or Zavala elementary schools. However, Douglass is located next to a highly polluting metal recycling plant and close to an active railroad. Zavala is located adjacent to highways 54 and 110 and near the heavily trafficked Bridge of the Americas, which will subject students to heavier air pollution and a hazardous commute across the highways.

Members of the two parents groups, the Beall and Burleson Parents Committees, also state that Douglass and Zavala will be overcrowded once students are relocated, and that neither school can adequately support children with special education needs.

“Our children have a right to be as healthy and safe in their schools as other kids,” said Hilda Villegas, whose son will be relocated to Douglass if Beall closes. “If our kids have to go to Douglass, they won’t be safe. Douglass is next to a toxic industrial facility; it’s near a canal, and there are trains going by constantly.”

Villegas, a leader of the Beall Parents Committee and the grassroots group Familias Unidas del Chamizal, is among parents who will file the Title VI complaint. Earlier this month, members of the groups held a weeklong hunger fast to protest the closure of the schools.

“Zavala is right next to two major highways,” said Crystal Rosales, a leader of the Burleson Parents Committee. “Going to school there will be like having to attend classes in the middle of a freeway. It’s extremely unsafe for my two daughters. By making them and other children go there, EPISD is subjecting them to a level of risk that other kids don’t have to face.”

The DOE complaint states, “EPISD’s school consolidations project and the actions it has taken towards fulfilling this plan violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because the consolidations would disproportionately increase students’ exposure to health and safety hazards on the basis of race and national origin.”

“Familias Unidas del Chamizal has been asking EPISD to evaluate the environmental risks at Douglass and Zavala elementary schools for years but EPISD has decided against conducting any sort of environmental study,” said TRLA attorney Margaret Barnes. “In January, EPISD staff characterized the path current Burleson students would need to take to Zavala as a ‘hazardous route.’ We are filing this complaint on behalf of the parents committees because no child should face unnecessary health and safety hazards to go to school.”

On May 10, the parents committees filed a similar complaint about the school closures to the Texas Education Agency (TEA), requesting that the closures be put on hold and investigated for the health and safety of the students. State Representative Evelina Ortega and El Paso County Commissioner David Stout wrote letters in support of the parents’ position.

nancy nusser