Friday, September 4, 2009

PA Courts Deny African American Students Class Action Certification

In a Memorandum dated August 19, 2009, Chief Justice Harvey Bartle, of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, denied class certification to plaintiffs, including six African American students and their parents, the NAACP—Main Line Branch, and Concerned Black Parents. The case was filed on July 30, 2007 by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) as a class action against the Lower Merion School District and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The lawsuit alleges persistent, routine, and system-wide racial segregation of African American students into below grade level or modified classes where they receive a substandard education.

Further, Chief Justice Bartle dismissed the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Concerned Black Parents and, presumably, the NAACP—Main Line Branch from the case all together. Concerned Black Parents and the NAACP are plaintiffs on behalf of all African American students who have experienced intentional and systematic racial discrimination within the Lower Merion School District. In an earlier memorandum, Chief Justice Bartle had dismissed all claims against the Lower Merion School Board members and claims for the Blunt family, the original plaintiffs in the case. Where there were no motions filed by the Lower Merion School District or the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Chief Justice Bartle treated their brief and assertions as legal motions, although none was officially submitted, and decided in their favor.

In stark contrast to Chief Justice Harvey Bartle’s decisions in favor of the Lower Merion School District and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, on June 2009 a decision was rendered by a Due Process Hearing officer in favor of one of the plaintiffs in the above referenced federal court case after extensive testimony by the defendants, the Lower Merion School District. Hearing Officer Dr. Valentini determined that, in fact, the Lower Merion School District denied its 17-year old African American high school student a free and appropriate education over a number of years; accordingly, the student was awarded a significant academic compensatory package for her loss of years of a meaningful education. This student received special education support services that were considered inferior by the hearing officer.

Unfortunately, many other plaintiffs, along with the denied “class,” in the federal case before Chief Justice Bartle are receiving an inferior education in a school district that is promoted and recognized as being one of Pennsylvania’s best public school systems. In support of class certification, the plaintiffs submitted a statistical analysis of the school district’s own data showing that African-American students are clustered in low track courses and denied placement in honors and advanced placement courses. The racial disparity is overwhelming and could not have occurred by chance. Data obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of Education showed that African-American students are overrepresented in special education and, once identified as special education students, are significantly more likely than Caucasian special education students to be placed in separate special education classes. Yet the Court ignored this evidence of class-wide discrimination against African-American students.

The nearly eight year-old No Child Left Behind law seemingly has had little impact on the achievement gap between Lower Merion’s black students and their white peers as demonstrated by the approximate 30 point differences in reading and math PSSA scores; these figures get slightly better or tremendously worse or varied levels. At a recent school board meeting, the district’s superintendent announced that the district is experiencing the highest number of student enrollment in honors level courses in recent history. The class action lawsuit that was put before the federal court in 2007 by the aforementioned plaintiffs is a plea before the Court to order a reluctant and covertly racist school district administration and staff to finally enable African American students to gain access to the wealth of academic achievement denied to its minority students.

As Chief Justice Harvey Bartle renders his opposition to certifying the case as a class action, dismisses key defendants, whittles plaintiffs off the case, and decides on non-existent motions; Lower Merion’s African American community and its legal team at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia will continue to seek justice for its students by submitting an Appeal to the higher Court.