Four years ago, Aginah Carter Shabazz was going through a rough time.
Her adult daughter had just been unjustly fingered in a homicide, and had a court battle on her hands.
The woman eventually beat said charges, but in the meantime, her younger sixth grader was going through his own issues in suburban Philadelphia.
Eric Allston was sent to live with Shabazz, his grandmother, while his mother dealt with her own troubles.
Shabazz assumed everything was going well in the boy’s new school district, Lower Merion. That is until she got the call.
“I told them repeatedly that he was not special ed,” Shabazz said, disputing the news she had just received from Lower Merion officials that her grandson was not only recommended for, but was placed into special education.
This was the same grandson who never required special education or learning assistance while attending Philadelphia public schools.
The same boy who was told prior that he was reading at a high school reading level, even though he was in sixth grade.
Needless to say, the news disturbed Shabazz. But perhaps what disturbed her even more was the fact that the school district never sought her input before deciding to place Allston into special education.
“I never signed the papers for him to go to special ed,” Shabazz said.
Shabazz is one of sixth plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the wealthy Lower Merion School District.
The case, Amber Blunt et al v. Lower Merion School District et al, was first filed back in 2007, but made headlines last week after the plaintiffs waived their right to privacy by filing, and making public, a legal brief challenging a July 15 motion for summary judgment filed by the school district, which wanted the civil suit dismissed.
The lawsuit alleges that Lower Merion was segregating black students from white pupils under the guise of placing them into special education or below grade-level classes.
The district vehemently denies any racial discrimination was going on.
“Our case has not changed,” Lower Merion School District spokesman Doug Young said in a Sept. 2 phone interview with the Pennsylvania Record. “This assertion that these claims are somehow connected to bias treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit.”
To Shabazz and the other plaintiffs, however, the notion that racial discrimination was taking place is not unimaginable.
“The school district leads you to think that this is something that’s happened a long time ago, that it’s over, and that’s not the case,” said Jennifer R. Clarke, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which, along with city law firm DLA Piper, is handling the case pro bono.
Carl W. Hittinger, a DLA Piper lawyer who is also working the case, said more lawsuits will likely be in the works, considering the number of phone calls he and the other attorneys receive regarding the matter on a regular basis.
“The statistics are quite shocking, what’s going on in the school [district],” Hittinger said.
Hittinger, Clarke, Shabazz and Public Interest Law Center attorney Sonja D. Kerr spoke to the Pennsylvania Record during an afternoon conference call Sept. 2.
The Allston count and the other counts in the lawsuit are eerily similar; youngsters being told they require special education, being moved into different classrooms, and, sometimes, other schools, under the guise of being helped, and parents and guardians who are left out of the decision-making process.
For Shabazz, the revelation that her grandson was not the only black child experiencing such a fate was alarming.
“One day, Eric came home and said, ‘I am at a different school,’” Shabazz said. “No letter, no phone call, nothing.”
Shabazz eventually went to Allston’s school to meet with teachers, administrators and the school psychologist. She asked that they discontinue her grandson’s special education, and return him to regular ed classes, “but they ignored that.”
Allston looked depressed in class, Shabazz said, and rightfully so; he didn’t belong in this classroom.
School administrators told her Allston was emotionally disturbed and even volatile; “he doesn’t have a volatile bone in his body,” she said was her response at the time.
Allston may have been going through a rough time given the issues with his mother, but that doesn’t change the fact that he doesn’t have a learning disability, Shabazz claims.
And it also doesn’t change the fact that school personnel should have told her what was going on with her grandson before they decided to take action, she said.
“They never informed me of anything that they were doing,” Shabazz said.
Kerr, the lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center, said this is not the first time she’s heard of students coming to Lower Merion from outside districts and being told they need to repeat a grade or seek out additional learning services.
But the fact that statistically, it’s been black students who have gone through such experiences makes the lawyers wonder if something else is going on.
“We know that there’s a large number of these students in Lower Merion because we keep getting the calls and we know the numbers,” Kerr said.
If the problem has been corrected, and the issue is resolved, as the school district suggests, the volume of calls should be going down, Kerr said, but it’s been the opposite.
“The phone doesn’t stop ringing,” Kerr said.
Still, the district maintains that the lawsuit represents a few isolated incidents that took place four years back, and are not representative of the educational experience at Lower Merion today, one where, the district contends, black students are achieving at all-time highs, including scoring very well on standardized tests, graduating at a rate of 97 percent and exceeding in other areas.
Young, the school district spokesman, pointed to the fact that a federal judge denied the plaintiffs class action status soon after the lawsuit was first filed as proving his point that these issues aren’t widespread. He also noted that the administrators who were named individually in the lawsuit have since been dismissed as defendants, again showing things aren’t as bad as the plaintiff’s attorneys would lead people to believe.
“Their claims were substantially limited,” Young said.
But the others aren’t buying it.
The denial of the class action doesn’t mean others aren’t alleging the same discriminatory treatment, said Clarke, the Public Interest Law Center attorney. A judge simply decided that each individual experience is different and the cases would be better off being tried separately, something Clarke said actually helps the plaintiff’s case.
“The pattern is very clear,” Clarke said of those she and the other lawyers have spoken with.
Clarke also noted that her research shows that every year there seems to be a disproportionate number of black children in special education classes at Lower Merion when compared with the overall number of black students in the district.
In the past, there have even been entire special education classes made up of strictly black students, a strange revelation in a district where only eight percent of the student body is African American, according to figures contained in the plaintiff’s latest court filing.
For now, it’s going to be up to a federal judge in Philadelphia this winter to decide whether the lawsuit holds water, Hittinger said.
While the school district has claimed that the dismissal of certain defendants and the fact that the case is four years old points to some sort of vindication on its part, Hittinger said, he and the other plaintiff’s attorneys know things are far from over.
“The court’s rulings before related to procedural and technical issues,” Hittinger said. “The court has not weighed in on the merits of this case,” despite what the school district might be insinuating.