Plaintiffs in a racial-discrimination lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District are lobbying to keep the case headed for a trial they believe it deserves, while the district seeks the case's dismissal.
Eight African-American families alleged in 2007 that African-American students are disproportionately placed in special education and low-level classes in Lower Merion schools.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, who are being represented by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and DLA Piper LLP, on Friday filed documents opposing the district's earlier motion for summary judgment. The case is now awaiting a reply from Lower Merion, which has been given until Friday, Sept. 2, to file. The district filed Monday for a one-week extension of that time frame and awaits a response from the court, district spokesman Doug Young said.
The plaintiffs claim that though African-Americans make up about 8 percent of the student population each year, they make up about 14 percent of the school’s special-education programs. They further allege that there were no African-American students in any honors, AP or IB courses between 2005 and 2008. The district is also accused of misidentifying certain African American students “as being disabled and mentally retarded in order to remove them from the general curriculum.”
“Simply put, African American students are not receiving the District’s famously touted ‘blue ribbon’ education that their Caucasian peers enjoy,” reads the plaintiffs’ memorandum opposing LMSD’s motion for summary judgment.
However, the district maintains that's just not the case. African-American students in LMSD are exceeding state averages in PSSA scores, are graduating and attending college at much higher rates than is the national average and that African-American enrollment in honors and AP courses has "improved dramatically, with levels now approaching white peers," Young wrote in an emailed statement to Patch.
"The plaintiffs’ claims relate to specific, individual special education disputes from years ago," Young wrote. "The assertion that they are somehow connected to biased treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit. Additionally, the suit completely ignores and even diminishes the success of African American students in Lower Merion School District."
Earlier this year, the case was by Chief Judge Harvey Battle III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
“The kids get evaluated and put in special education early on without appropriate testing, and then they get stuck in these classes and fall farther and farther behind,” said Jennifer Clarke, the executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. “I think the most important point here is that these brave, persistent, caring families have been saying this for so long, and no one’s been hearing it. And I really do hope that they will now be heard—that this is a real problem, this isn’t just a figment of their imagination.”
Carl Hittinger, of DLA Piper’s Philadelphia office, said LMSD still has not made enough changes to remedy its past wrongs.
“This is a very important story, and it will change the school district, if we’re successful, for the better—for everyone,” Hittinger said.
The district says it's already proud of its education services.
"By any measure, LMSD is an exemplary District in supporting the achievement of all students," Young wrote. "The District should be receiving awards for these efforts, not lawsuits."