Race Bias Claims Against PA School District Nixed

     (CN) – Inspiring a vigorous dissent from the panel’s lone black judge, the 3rd Circuit found that Pennsylvania school administrators did not intentionally discriminate in placing a disproportionate number of black children in special-education classes.
     From 2005 to 2010, black students made up 7 to 8 percent of the total student body in Lower Merion School District (LMSD), a district covering northwest suburbs of Philadelphia, but 12 to 14 percent of special-education students.
     During these years, there were no black students in college prep or advanced placement classes.
     Amber Blunt led several Merion students in a class action that accused the school district of systematically discriminating against black children, incorrectly classifying more black students than white students as learning disabled, and thereby limiting black students’ opportunities for a top education by placing them in remedial classes.
     The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Concerned Black Parents of Mainline also joined in the suit.
     A federal judge ruled for the school district in 2011, however, finding no indication that the district’s actions stemmed from intentional discrimination rather than errors in student evaluations.
     A divided three-judge panel with the 3rd Circuit affirmed in a 124-page opinion Friday, but Chief Judge Theodore McKee, the panel’s one black judge, wrote separately to express his “strong disagreement” with parts of the majority’s opinion.
     “The allegations here are not pretty,” McKee, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, wrote. “No one likes to think that a school district, especially one with an outstanding educational reputation, allows race to be a factor in assigning African-American students to special education classes. However, there is sufficient evidence on this record to establish that a trial is warranted to determine whether this school district did exactly that.”
     In this case, Lower Merion put one black student in special-education classes though the boy measured “average” in all skill assessments, McKee noted. Another was classified as learning disabled because she was deficient in language arts – even though that subject is not a disability category.
     In addition, the school allegedly destroyed testing records that determined a student’s placement in special-education classes, sometimes before their parents could even review them.
     “In response to this glaring evidence in support of plaintiffs’ claims that they were placed into special education classes because of their race rather than their relative academic need, the majority simply makes a blanket assertion that ‘if the same evaluation procedures are used for all students or [sic] their race there is simply no discrimination,'” McKee wrote. “This statement is deeply problematic for two reasons. First, it assumes that the procedures themselves cannot be discriminatory. Second, and most importantly here, it assumes the ‘procedures’ comprise the whole of the evaluation, thus ignoring the discretion and subjectivity afforded the examiner who is applying the procedures and interpreting the results of the evaluations.”
     The majority meanwhile emphasized that “the whole record” does not present an issue of material fact concerning LMSD’s intent.”
     “There is no evidence showing that the district intended to discriminate against plaintiffs, nor that LMSD had knowledge of any intentional discrimination on the part of its employees, including deliberate indifference to discriminatory practices against African American students as a form of intentional discrimination,” Judge Morton Greenberg wrote for the majority.
     All students were individually evaluated using the same criteria, the court found.
     “After all, if the same evaluation procedures are used for all students regardless of their race there simply is no discrimination,” Greenberg, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan wrote.
     McKee found singled this statement out as especially problematic in his dissent. He also pointed out that the school district could have come forward with evidence of white students mistakenly placed in special-education classes, but did not – or could not – do so.
     The majority countered that Lower Merion assessed and satisfied each individual student’s educational needs “through a thorough and individualized IEP process.”
     The record “contains no evidence that the educators and administrators responsible for placing students intended to discriminate against them because of their race,” Greenberg said.
     Judge Thomas Ambro, another Clinton appointee, concurred separately.

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