LMSD is divided into zones corresponding to two high schools: Lower Merion and Harriton. Lower Merion is actually situated within the Harriton zone, meaning that students within walking distance of Lower Merion had been allowed choose to attend either school.

With the new zoning, the "Students Doe" lost the ability to attend Lower Merion High School. They claimed that it was the result of racial discrimination because they lived in a neighborhood that, while mostly white, had a much-higher-than-average black population.

The district's plan had been to equalize enrollment at the two schools. Though they had a number of stated goals, none of them included race. They did admit, however, that race was one of many factors used in considering how the new zones would be placed. This was done with the stated purpose of reducing "racial isolation" at Harriton High School. In his official decision, district Judge Michael Baylson ruled that:

"The task of running a populous township's school system composed of two high schools, two middle schools, and six elementary schools, is not one in which a federal district judge should interfere unless there is an overriding constitutional issue. Nevertheless, discrimination against any individual because of race or any other protected classification is illegal, and a judge has a high responsibility to act once proof of discrimination has been presented. This case requires the Court to balance these competing interests in deciding whether the redistricting of a geographic area due to its racial makeup violates the Equal Protection Clause and requires judicial action contrary to the school district's assignment plan."

In the striking of this balance, the concept of judicial scrutiny comes into play. There are three levels of scrutiny, each one applying to a different type of discrimination case and each one requiring more evidence than the last that the measure being reviewed is necessary. Though the school district argued that it was not appropriate, Baylson applied strict scrutiny, the highest of the three levels. In ruling that the new zones passed strict scrutiny, Baylson decided that the redistricting was 'narrowly tailored' to achieve a 'compelling governmental interest' while restricting the freedom of the affected students as little as possible.

The judge stated that "Although Congress and the Supreme Court have unequivocally prohibited public officials from discriminating on the basis of individual racial classifications in distributing benefits or burdens, neither has determined that adverse impact alone is unconstitutional." That is to say, the students in question may be burdened by the district's decision, but they have not proved that they were burdened specifically because they were black, so it's not clear that discrimination has taken place. The district argued that it would have adopted this plan whether or not the racial data had been available.

The students involved released a statement expressing their disappointment with the Supreme Court's decision. However, they also expressed pride in their accomplishments. The press release below is worded in the third person:

They have brought to light the fact that the Lower Merion School Board's redistricting process was driven largely by racial considerations, and that this happened in private, behind closed doors, all while the District was denying that it was going on. They have brought to light the fact that the District has manipulated its own policies on things like school walk zones in a way that disadvantages some of the citizens while bestowing advantages on others. If nothing else, Students Doe and their families are hopeful that these proceedings will cause the District to be more open, transparent, and honest going forward, and that the District will act in the collective best interest of all its students irrespective of their race.

While  Baylson's factual findings (linked below) do not seem to corroborate the statement that the district's decisions were driven largely by racial considerations, the feelings of the students are understandable. The debate over the legality of the redistricting has ended, but we can expect it to give way to a much more challenging debate over the ethicality of this sort of measure.

Related links:

The District Court Judge Baylson's opinion

Judge Baylson's factual findings

A brief submitted in favor of the LMSD

A brief submitted in favor of the Students Doe

The 2006 Supreme Court ruling on Parents Involved v. Seattle School District