Lower Merion School District, frequent target of litigation, facing claims of segregation

By Jon Campisi | Sep 2, 2011

The Lower Merion School District in suburban Philadelphia, which has been sued over its redistricting plan and the laptop webcam controversy, is once again facing litigation, this time over an alleged plot to place students in special education classes on the basis of race.

“Lower Merion intentionally and systematically misidentifies African American students as requiring special education as a method of removing African American students from the general curriculum,” according to court papers filed in federal court Aug. 26. “In addition, until last year, Lower Merion intentionally and systematically segregated African American students by placing them in below-grade level classes.”

The statements were contained in a 43-page plaintiff’s memorandum of law in opposition to the school district’s motion for summary judgment.

The actual lawsuit, Amber Blunt et al v. Lower Merion School District, was first filed in July 2007 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The case was making its way through the courts and had been scheduled for a November 2011 trial, when the school district filed its motion for summary judgment.

In response to the district’s motion, plaintiff’s pro bono counsel, made up of lawyers with the Philadelphia firm DLA Piper LLP and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, filed their own lengthy opposition memorandum. The document, according to Ashley Yahn, a spokeswoman for Greentarget, the PR firm representing DLA Piper, contains information about the case that was previously sealed for confidentiality due to the nature of the lawsuit.

The memorandum paints a troubling picture of the Lower Merion School District, which in recent time had been sued over its laptop webcam controversy, in which students claimed they were secretly photographed by take-home laptop computers installed with photo imaging software; and over its redistricting plan, in which parents of black students alleged racial bias when the district changed some of the catchment schools for neighborhood children.

The new litigation harks back to the latter in that it, too, deals with race as a factor in student education.

In this case, the plaintiffs are six current or former Lower Merion students who claim they were “victims of Lower Merion’s intentional and systemic practice of misidentifying African American students as learning disabled and mentally retarded,” the plaintiff’s memorandum states.

As a result of the alleged racial discrimination, the court papers state, there is a “drastic disproportionate number of African American students in special education, and there remains a substantial achievement gap between African American students and Caucasian students at Lower Merion.”

The lawsuit, which was denied class certification soon after the civil action was filed in 2007, claims that the school district was well aware of the “inferior education” offered to black pupils dating back at least 13 years, when Lower Merion created the Committee Addressing Race in Education, or the CARE Committee, which was developed in response to parental concerns regarding the African American educational experience at the district.

The suit claims that as recent as last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education found there to be a disproportionate number of black students in special education classes in the Lower Merion School District. Furthermore, the state found that the district was not in compliance with its requirements and standards.

“Lower Merion’s knowledge of these issues coupled with the gross statistical disparities and failure to remedy this gross disproportionately summarized above can only be attributed to Lower Merion’s intentional segregation of African American students,” the memorandum states.

Through the memorandum, the plaintiffs' attorneys argue that the school district’s motion for summary judgment should not be granted since the evidence of record shows a clear pattern of racial discrimination.

“At the very least, the evidence in the record puts the myriad of material factual issues in dispute,” the memorandum states.

In one example of inappropriate placement, plaintiff Saleema Hall contends she was diagnosed as having a learning disability despite the fact that the school psychologist never conducted a standard classroom observation, a legal requirement when making such a diagnosis.

In another example in the lawsuit, plaintiff Chantae Hall claims to have complained about the “inferior education” she received at the hands of the school district. She complained to her mother, for example, that the work was not challenging enough, even calling it “baby work,” and saying it was “too easy.”

In the case of the latter, the student developed self-confidence issues, the suit states, believing that perhaps she couldn’t learn the material because she “never had a chance to build strategies for herself outside of the special education context.”

The school district could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

In a statement released to the media, however, district representatives seemed to take umbrage with the claim that certain students may have been placed into special education classes based solely on race.

“The plaintiffs’ claims relate to specific, individual special education disputes from years ago. The assertion that they are somehow connected to biased treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit,” the school district said in its statement, according to Philadelphia’s WTXF Fox 29 news.

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