ARDMORE, PA - A discrimination lawsuit filed over three years ago against the Lower Merion School District by eight African American families will go to trial in November 2011, according to a recent decision by Chief Judge Harvey Bartle III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of PA.
The lawsuit, Blunt et al v. Lower Merion School District, is seeking class action on behalf of "all present and future African American students" in the district who, "because of defendants' acts and omissions . . . are denied access to the general education curriculum; are placed in below-grade-level classes; receive a modified curriculum; and/or are sent to separate, segregated schools which provides them with an education inferior to that provided their Caucasian peers."
The suit was first filed on July 30, 2007, and after failed mediation, the case will move forward in court.
The plaintiffs claim that Lower Merion School District "systematically discriminated against its black students by disproportionately and inappropriately referring them to and placing them in special education programs and the lowest level classes, where they are segregated from their white peers and receive substandard educations," according to a press release issued by the plaintiffs. Concerned Black Parents, Inc. and the NAACP Main Line Branch joined the families in filing the suit. Lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphiaï»¿ and DLA Piper LLP are representing the plaintiffs.
The school district's response is below:
While the District shares the Plaintiffs' goal of ensuring that every student is achieving and that every student receives the appropriate supports, continued litigation of the Blunt case is not the vehicle to achieve this outcome.
When this case was originally filed, PILCOP was seeking systematic relief for perceived inequities at LMSD. Now that the Court has refused to certify this case as a class action, the ability to secure any type of systematic relief has been extremely limited. Moreover, because the Court has gutted most of the original claims from the lawsuit, PILCOP will have to prove intentional racial discrimination to prevail. There is no evidence of intentional racial discrimination and the general statistical data being assembled by PILCOP does not prove intentional racial discrimination.
LMSD requested mediation last year so that resources could be focused on improved outcomes for students rather than the demands of protracted legal proceedings. The mediation process followed a ruling favorable to the District in 2009 that dismissed the Pennsylvania Department of Education as a defendant, removed various organizations from the Plaintiffs’ case and refused to certify the case as a class action.
Despite extensive, aggressive, ongoing efforts on the part of the District to address achievement gaps, eight months of mediation and continued setbacks to their case, the Plaintiffs have chosen to prolong the matter – and burden taxpayers with the associated costs – in the courtroom.
What is perhaps most frustrating to school community members is PILCOP’s continued practice of ignoring, dismissing and condemning at every turn the District’s commitment to improving student achievement. By any measure, the District has taken a leadership role in the effort to close the achievement gap and will continue to do so in the coming months and years. LMSD is one of only a handful of districts in Pennsylvania to include the “achievement gap” as a primary focus of its strategic plan.
The following are examples of the District’s overall commitment to supporting the achievement of African American students:
The District has made significant changes in practices for student support and secondary course enrollment under the new Strategic Plan, including a secondary review of performance as students transition into high school to ensure appropriate and challenging placement.
The District’s Minority Achievement Program (MAP), which began at Lower Merion HS has yielded significant gains in achievement. MAP is designed to provide a challenging academic environment with systemic supports for success. Between 2006 and 2010, for example, the enrollment of African American students in LMHS world language courses increased from 53% to 83%. During this period, African American enrollment in honors level world language courses increased from 18% to 34%. Similar gains have been achieved in other subject areas.
In 2009, Dr. Deitra Spence assumed the role of Special Assistant to the Superintendent for Assessment and Accountability, with a particular focus on minority student achievement.
Comprehensive summer programs and the elimination of modified courses are strategies that have targeted under-achieving high school students.
During the past seven years all LMSD teachers have received training Differentiated Instruction and cultural proficiency/literacy.
In recent years, the District has hired additional literacy and mathematics staff at all levels to provide enhanced supports.
Staff mentorship programs pair new African-American staff with current staff member to assist in transition, understanding LMSD’s unique culture.
The District’s college attendance rate for African American students is 88%, compared to a national average of 44%.
Strategic recruitment practices to attract minority staff include targeted radio and print ads and participation in minority recruitment fairs. In 2009-10 the District sponsored an in-house recruitment effort; African American teachers represented 24% of all new hires.
During the past five years, 11% of all new teacher hires have been African American.
Since 2003, 16% of hires for all positions (support and professional) have been African American. Currently, 13% of the District’s staff are African American.
LMSD is a charter member of the Delaware Valley Minority Student Achievement Consortium, a University of Pennsylvania-sponsored organization of educational professionals that meet regularly to discuss strategies and best practices for supporting minority achievement.
CARE (Committee to Address Race in Education) is entering its 12th year. Committee members include teachers, community members, and administrators. The committee fosters frank and open discussion about the influence of race on the educational program in Lower Merion and strategies for understanding and addressing the causes of the achievement gap.
The District has engaged with a variety of community organizations, including Concerned Black Parents and the Main Line Black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance to discuss issues of race and to develop presentations and workshops for parents in the areas of mathematics, literacy, special education and reading. In 2009-10 the District conducted four day-long workshops/summits for Concerned Black Parents based on topics proposed by CBP.
The District helped launch Bethel Academy, a community-based after-school support center for Ardmore youth. The District worked with Verizon to provide computers and Internet technology at the Bethel facility.
The Education Foundation of Lower Merion is a community group launched by the District that aims to support District educational initiatives. A key priority is funding programs that address the achievement gap.
The District is proud of its reputation for providing top-notch special education services. Families regularly move into the district to receive these services.
No students have been placed in special education that were not found eligible to receive services and whose parents did not approve in writing that the services be provided. For all but a very small percentage of the school day, the vast majority (more than 90%) of students receiving services are in a regular/general education environment.
Federal and state law requires us to provide special education services and assessments are based on specific criteria and evaluation methods. The District utilizes multiple criteria and methods to eliminate any potential for cultural biases.
Between 2007 and 2010, the percentage of African American students identified as gifted increased from 2.8% to 4.8%.
The learning environment in LMSD is considered by the PA Department of Education to be highly inclusive for students with special needs.
The District has acknowledged, through its Strategic Plan, historical concerns surrounding minority achievement and supports. In response, the District has aggressively sought to take a leadership role in the effort to address minority achievement in the areas of educational programming, hiring, community engagement and staff development. This is a complex, national issue and like our neighbors, we continue to strive for improvement. Addressing the achievement gap and ensuring the achievement of all students is a top District priority.