Lower Merion school district suit dismissed

The Lower Merion School District headquarters in Ardmore. A federal court threw out a racial discrimination case against the district. – PHOTO COURTESY LOWER MERION SCHOOL DISTRICT

Black families study options, may appeal


Lawyers for seven families who saw their federal racial discrimination lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District thrown out last week are huddling now to determine if they will appeal the ruling, handed down last Thursday.

“Obviously we are disappointed,” Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia lawyer Jennifer R. Clarke said. “We will meet with our clients over the next couple of days and we will let them let us know what they want to do. That is the conversation we will be having.”

The law firm DLA Piper LLP also represents the plaintiffs.

The original suit, filed in 2007, alleges that African-American students are disproportionately placed in special education and low-level classes in Lower Merion.

It contends that African Americans make up about 14 percent of the school district’s special-education programs, even though they comprise just eight percent of the district’s overall population. Plaintiffs also claimed that between 2005-08, no African Americans were enrolled in advanced or accelerated programs.

“Even assuming that plaintiffs put forth evidence that their constitutional rights were violated, there is no evidence that the School District did so based on an official policy or custom, or that it was deliberately indifferent to plaintiffs’ rights,” reads the decision by Chief Judge Harvey Battle III of the U.S. District  Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

“The School District’s awareness of an achievement gap between Caucasian and African-American students and its failure to eliminate that gap is not evidence of intentional discrimination or deliberate indifference,” Battle continued.

In a letter to the Lower Merion School District staff, Superintendent Christopher McGinley said he hoped the ruling would enable the district to begin the healing process.

“I am hopeful that this ruling will enable all parties to continue moving forward in a positive spirit of partnership and open dialogue as we work to close the student achievement gaps. Litigation has been divisive, distracting and costly to everyone involved in this case. All members of the community must feel safe and encouraged to speak their minds, share ideas, innovate and express differences in opinion. Only in this collaborative environment can we ensure the greatest opportunities for students and staff,” wrote McGinley.

Clarke said that the ruling does not absolve Lower Merion of being discriminatory.

“It’s difficult to prove intent; everybody doesn’t agree on what it is,” she said. “But it’s really important that we be clear in what we are talking about. We brought forth a significant amount of evidence. The ruling is not saying that there is no discrimination in Lower Merion.  He just said that we didn’t prove this sufficiently; that we didn’t give him enough information to make that determination on these seven kids.”

Said McGinley: “While we never doubted this case would conclude in favor of the District, we are gratified for a ruling that unequivocally reaffirms the tireless and extraordinary efforts of our staff in supporting the achievement of all students.”

Battle’s ruling came a little more than a week before the trial was scheduled to begin (Nov. 1). Lower Merion had filed for a summary dismissal of the case in late August.

Also last week, the district settled in federal court with a former substitute teacher who alleged she had been discriminated against on the basis of age and race. The suit was filed 17 months ago.

Forty-seven-year-old African-American Besslindora Goree claimed she was recruited from Broward County, Fla. in 2010 to Lower Merion under the presumption that her long-term substitute position would result in a permanent position, according to the complaint.

The complaint further cites that she was not treated as well as her white counterparts, claiming that, among other things, she was not assigned a ‘buddy” – an experienced teacher – to help her familiarize herself with district policies.  She was assigned to teach about 150 students while, according to the complaint, a white teacher was assigned just 90.

The complaint alleges Goree was passed over for a white woman in her mid-20s.

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