When Vicki Beatty's son couldn't access his zoned elementary school in his wheelchair, she knew it was time to force the system's hand. She challenged administrators to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
That was back in 2005. She joined forces with another parent and filed a lawsuit that year. The federal mandate had been in place for 15 years. Beatty believed then that Richmond schools ignored it, and her mission was fueled with frustration.
“There's no doubt about it this was a civil rights issue,” said Beatty. “No matter how daunting it was, we knew we had to do it so somebody else didn't have to do it ten years from now.”
When Beatty and a wheelchair bound parent filed the suit, a federal judge cracked down. A settlement was reached and the system was forced to make the schools ADA compliant within a five year span. The list included more than 240 projects and a $20 million dollar price tag.
"Every single school in Richmond just about, had to have a ramp put in, accessible bathrooms put in, water fountains and hardware to enter the school and office," added Beatty.
Though the suit was settled in 2006 the projects didn't start until 2008. That's when the money came in from Richmond City Council, said Beatty.
Chief of Staff at RPS, Dr. Ronald Carey, said they tried to meet the goals they set for each year. "I wished we had not had the lawsuit but I don't know what we would have done with the mandates that came along,” he said.
“It goes without saying that we needed some assistance, so that's the piece where we were able to do it within 5 years and that's why I want us to be able to stay on time," said Dr. Carey.
He added, when the system was ordered to follow the terms of a settlement that grew out of the lawsuit, it was critical for them to show that they would adhere to the guidelines.
So, in the first two years alone the school system completed 131 projects, including 24 new playgrounds.
On a tour of Northside's Ginter Park Elementary Dr. Carey shows us the changes that are putting the school on track to become ADA compliant.
There are painted parking spaces, a wheelchair lane and a doorbell lowered so that anyone in a wheelchair can reach it.
He also showed off the school's elevator and a revamped office that now boasts lowered countertops so it's easier for those who are wheelchair bound to do business with the person on the other side.
"When they enter the school, now it's going to be can I get around and there's an elevator and if I want a drink of cold water there are water coolers that are now the right height" said Dr. Carey.
He says the list of projects has now been whittled down to about 50 items; things that will soon be addressed as the RPS begins year five of the settlement.
So with a little more than a year left on the clock, we asked the woman at the center of the federal lawsuit what she thinks of the progress and if she believes the deadline will be met. Beatty said yes, she's confident.
"I'm thrilled it's getting completed. It would have been nice in five, but if it's in seven or eight, it's being done," she said.
Beatty emphasizes this is more like a partnership now, rather than an adversarial situation like when this all began. She said all parties to the lawsuit share monthly updates with a federal judge.
As crews enter year five, hoping to meet the deadline, administrators know the pressure is on and the community is watching. Dr. Carey said they're on track to have all the projects done.