Friday, January 14, 2011

Trial date set for racial discrimination case against the Lower Merion School District

After unsuccessful attempts to mediate a long-standing lawsuit, Concerned Black Parents and several African American families head back to Federal Court in November, 2011 to address the failure of the Lower Merion School District to eradicate the impact of racist and discriminatory policies and practices toward its black students.

On July 30, 2007, Concerned Black Parents. Inc. joined several African American students, parents and the NAACP Mainline Branch as plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District, and later amended the Complaint to add the Pennsylvania Department of Education as defendants. The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) originally filed the case with lead attorneys Barbara Ransom and Judy Gran who have since passed the gauntlet to Sonja Kerr. In 2009, the international law firm of DLA Piper joined PILCOP in representing the Lower Merion plaintiffs; thereby adding an outstanding team of lawyers led by Carl Hittinger.

Generally, the Complaint alleges that the School District’s policies and practices caused African American students and the members of the class to fall behind their peers academically.

The Federal Court’s Chief Justice Harvey Bartle, III initial response to the Complaint was to deny the plaintiffs a class standing, to dismiss several plaintiffs, and to insist that all plaintiffs receiving special education services exhaust all remedies and resolve issues under the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA).

In 2007, the Lower Merion School District tracked students on several academic levels; including modified, standard, honors, advanced placement and the International Baccalaureate. Anecdotal and factual evidence indicates that the majority of African Americans are routinely segregated into the lowest academic levels provided by the school district, with a small handful enrolled in honors, AP or IB courses. Nearly 90 percent of a modified class contained African American students; which is statistically improbable without direct manipulation in a district where these students total 7.5 percent of the entire student body. Today, the District reports the elimination of all modified level courses.

Demonstratively, African American students are not benefiting from the blue-ribbon winning school district where the majority of Euro-American students are in higher-level courses that improve standardized test scores and post-secondary outcomes. This lawsuit intends to even the playing field.

The IDEA and No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), require the District to provide these students access to the same general education curriculum and quality education, which Lower Merion provides to their similarly situated peers.

In an effort to accomplish what Chief Justice Bartle ordered, PILCOP filed 5, 10, and then 20 Due Process Hearings (21 in all so far) for African American students in an attempt to make right the special education wrongs accomplished by the Lower Merion School District over decades

In all cases either the Hearing Officer determined that the Lower Merion School District did not provide an appropriate education to African American students and ordered appropriate remedies or a settlement agreemet was reached.

Among other revelations, evidence revealed that certain students did not belong in special education simply because they are not disabled.

Within days of DLA Pipers admission as legal representatives to the plaintiffs, the LMSD initiated an attempt to settle the three-year old lawsuit. Retired Federal Judge Bissell joined the case to mediate the settlement. Plaintiffs attended the mediation sessions with experts— professors, authors and researchers—who studied the case and recommended what is known to alleviate the impact of institutional racism in public education. On December 10, 2010, Dr. McGinley, Michael Kelly and district attorneys failed to settle the three-year old lawsuit with plaintiffs.

This case goes to a jury trial in November, 2011.