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July 25, 2014, 2:58 am

Lower Merion district denies racial bias, student placement

School officials allege factual errors in seven Black plaintiffs’ lawsuit

 

The Lower Merion School District denies the allegations of a lawsuit claiming it intentionally and routinely placed African Americans in special education programs when it wasn’t merited, and is seeking to have the case thrown out.

Earlier this summer, the LMSD filed a motion for a summary judgment in the case. The plaintiffs — seven African Americans — want to see the case go before a jury, and their representation responded with a court filing detailing why the case should move forward.

However, in a recently filed reply brief, the District maintains that there are factual errors by the plaintiffs that further point out why a trial by jury is not needed.

Specifically, the LMSD refutes the assertion that “from 2005 to 2008, Lower Merion did not enroll a single African-American student in any of its Honors, AP or IB courses.”

The District asserts that the plaintiffs’ expert’s work doesn’t include this. Rather, the District says Dr. James Conroy’s report states “that African-American students were enrolled in more than 30 Honors and AP courses in every year from 2005 to 2008.”

A judge is expected to rule on whether or not this case will have a jury by early November, according to LMSD liaison Doug Young. However, the judge can take as much time as he wishes before rendering a decision.

In the meantime, the LMSD says that it wants the best for all of its students whether they are Black or white. The District maintains that these are just a few isolated incidents and that they are not a full representation of the District’s approach to educating children.

“What we are trying to do is get to the same place; we do share the same goals,” said Young. “We would like to see every student achieving at their highest level. We are proud of what we have accomplished at Lower Merion. That is not to say that we are perfect and that there is not room for improvement.”

Overall, statistically Lower Merion is not doing too badly in terms of educating African Americans.

According to the District, PSSA math and reading scores for African-American students in the LMSD are at all-time highs. Its African-American students attend college at twice the rate (83 percent in 2011) of the national average. The African-American graduation rate (97 percent) substantially outstrips the national average (55 percent). In fact, African Americans in the LMSD do better than their white counterparts nationally (78 percent) and statewide (80 percent).

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, however, contend that the overall success of African-American students in the LMSD and the herding of African-American students into special education classes are exclusive of one another.

“One has absolutely nothing to do with the other,” Carl Hittinger, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said last week.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers say that in 2006 and 2010 a state report found that there were a disproportionate number of African-American students at LMSD in special education classes, which the commonwealth found was not in compliance with its requirements and standards.

The District countered this by saying that in the 2003-2004 school year, data indicated a disproportionate number of Black students “receiving special education services in relation to their population within the District.”

The obvious difference here is that the parties are discussing different school years altogether.

According to Wanda J. Blanchett, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Education and an associate professor of urban special education in the Department of Exceptional Education at the University of Wisconsin, the disproportionate placement of African Americans in special education classes is a nefarious plot.

“African-American students are disproportionately referred to and placed in high-incidence special education categories of mental retardation, emotional or behavioral disorders and learning disabilities,” Blanchett said.

She referred to a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education that indicated that African-American students are not only placed in these programs at a disproportionately higher rate than their counterparts, but that they also exit from them at a slower rate.

“Once labeled as having disabilities and placed in special education, African-American students make achievement gains and exit special education at rates considerably lower than those of white students identified as having disabilities.”

African-American students, Blanchett says, that are placed in special education classes are more likely to be segregated from — with little to no contact with — their non-disabled peers and denied access to the general education curriculum.

“These realities suggest that race maters, both in educators’ initial decisions to refer students for special education, and in their subsequent placement decisions for students labeled as having disabilities,” Blanchett concluded.

 

Staff writer John N. Mitchell can be reached at (215)-893-5745 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.