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Conservative parent group accuses Lower Merion of discrimination because of its ‘affinity groups’

Parents Defending Education filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging the district's affinity groups and cultural competency lessons are racist.

A racial affinity group at Lower Merion High School was among the programs cited in the complaint from Parents Defending Education.
A racial affinity group at Lower Merion High School was among the programs cited in the complaint from Parents Defending Education.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

A national group that opposes equity initiatives in schools says it has filed a federal complaint against the Lower Merion School District, alleging its racial affinity groups for students and cultural competency lessons amount to racial discrimination.

Parents Defending Education, which bills itself as “fighting indoctrination in the classroom,” says it filed the complaint Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, with claims that the Montgomery County district violated provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 14th Amendment. A spokesperson for the department said Wednesday it does not typically acknowledge complaints until they have been evaluated and accepted for investigation.

» READ MORE: What is Parents Defending Education, the group accusing Lower Merion of discrimination?

Lower Merion spokesperson Amy Buckman said Wednesday that the district was aware of the reported complaint.

The district “strongly disagrees” with the characterization that its affinity group and cultural competency programs are racist, Buckman said. She said the district was not legally obligated to respond to the complaint unless the Office of Civil Rights proceeds with a formal complaint.

It wasn’t clear Wednesday how Lower Merion came to the attention of Parents Defending Education. The group, which filed the complaint as a third-party organization and not on behalf of any particular students, has filed numerous complaints with the Office of Civil Rights against schools since launching in March 2021.

Nicole Neily, Parents Defending Education’s president, said Wednesday that the group has a tip line that yields most of its information, largely from people who submit anonymously.

“The major concern is that students are being treated differently on the basis of race, which is unconstitutional,” Neily said of Lower Merion. She objected to students being encouraged to participate in programs based on “immutable characteristics.”

In its complaint, Parents Defending Education cited groups it said Lower Merion offers only to students of color, including Becton Scholars at Lower Merion High School and POWER Scholars at Harriton High School. The district describes both as “affinity groups that help cultivate academic excellence and leadership and give students a safe space to engage in conversations and activities to voice their ideas, differences, goals, along with celebrating their cultural heritage.”

It also mentioned a REACH affinity group at the middle-school level, with a questionnaire asking students about their interest in “activism opportunities” and “meeting with middle school students of color from different school districts in PA.”

Buckman said the district has had minority student achievement programs for more than a decade, and has “numerous other student affinity groups,” which are voluntary, including Asian, Spanish, Israeli and French cultural clubs and a Jewish Student Union, among others.

Parents Defending Education also took issue with cultural competency lessons that Buckman said were piloted at one elementary school, Penn Wynne, in 2013 and expanded across the district’s elementary schools in 2021.

The district’s Cultural Proficiency for Kids program uses a picture book called The Skin You Live In “to encourage students to ‘point out skin colors throughout’ the book,” according to the complaint, and discuss their own skin color and attributes.

Asked whether the district, which enrolls about 8,700 students, had received any complaints about either the affinity groups or cultural proficiency lessons, Buckman said a “few” parents — possibly one to three, she said — had requested that their children not participate this year in the lessons. Parents don’t have to provide a reason to opt out, she said.

Buckman said it could take weeks or months for the Office of Civil Rights to advise the district whether it would move forward with the complaint.

Neily said the office has opened investigations into two complaints filed by her organization involving similar issues, one against a school in New York City and another in South Carolina.