Federal judge dismisses discrimination lawsuit against Lower Merion School District

By Jon Campisi | Oct 25, 2011

A federal judge in Philadelphia last week dismissed a racial discrimination lawsuit against a wealthy suburban school district, four years after the civil action was first filed by six African American families who alleged bias in class placement.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Harvey Bartle, III, threw out the complaint against the Lower Merion School District.

The case, Amber Blunt et al v. Lower Merion School District, was filed in 2007 by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and DLA Piper LLP on behalf of the seven families of black students.

The suit alleged that black students were disproportionately placed in special education and below grade-level classes. The claim was that the school district did this as a means of discriminating against black students.

The case remained hidden from view for much of the time, and didn’t really become public until the school district filed a motion for summary judgment this year, a move that caused the plaintiffs to file a public response to the district’s claims that it had done nothing wrong.

In his ruling, filed on Oct. 20, Judge Bartle said that the plaintiffs had offered no compelling evidence that the district specifically discriminated against the student plaintiffs.

“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 official policy or custom or that it was deliberately indifferent to plaintiff’s rights,” the ruling read.

School district officials lauded the judge’s ruling, saying on its website that it was “heartened by the outcome.”

“The Court’s action validates and affirms the dedication and hard work of the entire staff and the fundamental merits of our exemplary and comprehensive education programs, including special education,” the district said in a statement.

Lower Merion’s superintendent, Christopher McGinley, expressed his pleasure with the judge’s decision in a letter sent to staff immediately following the ruling. The letter was posted on the school district’s website.

“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 student achievement gaps,” the letter read. “Litigation has been divisive, distracting and costly for everyone involved in this case.”

The judge’s ruling came about two weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial.

Earlier this month, school district lawyers and attorneys working for the plaintiffs appeared before Bartle in federal court in Philadelphia to argue the perceived merits, or lack thereof, concerning the case.

At the time, the school district’s lawyers argued that the defendants’ motion for summary judgment should be granted because the plaintiffs had failed to come up with specific evidence to back up their claims that the individual students were placed into special education classes as a way of discriminating against them.

The plaintiffs attorneys, led by Carl Hittinger of DLA Piper, counter-argued that certain “factual disputes,” such as whether the district “intentionally, systematically” misidentified students requiring special education placement, would be better reserved for trial, and not during pre-trial sessions.

In his ruling, Bartle concluded that “none of the plaintiffs’ allegations are sufficient to create a genuine issue of fact regarding whether the School District was indifferent to the plaintiffs’ rights.”

Furthermore, Bartle stated, “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.”

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