A lawsuit filed more than three years ago by several Lower Merion School District students and parents contending that some African American children were improperly classified as special education students or placed in "low-expectation" courses has been scheduled for trial.
The trial is to begin on Nov. 1, barring a settlement. Mediation efforts went on over much of last year but ended in December with no agreement.
The Lower Merion district, in a statement released Monday by spokesman Douglas Young, said it had "acknowledged . . . historical concerns surrounding minority achievement and supports." So, "the district has aggressively sought to take a leadership role in the effort to address minority achievement in the areas of educational programming, hiring, community engagement, and staff development," it said.
Continued litigation, the statement said, is not the way to achieve the plaintiffs' - and the district's - "goal of ensuring that every student is achieving."
The lawsuit, Blunt et al v. Lower Merion School District, was filed in July 2007 seeking class action on behalf of "all present and future African American students" in the district who, "because of defendants' acts and omissions . . . are denied access to the general education curriculum; are placed in below-grade-level classes; receive a modified curriculum; and/or are sent to separate, segregated schools which provides them with an education inferior to that provided their Caucasian peers."
U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle 3d ruled in 2009 that the plaintiffs' situations and potential remedies were too individualized to be lumped into a class-action suit. The judge also said that before the case could be heard in his court, the plaintiffs must pursue other legal avenues available to them, such as administrative hearings under special education laws. And he ruled that two community organizations that had been plaintiffs, Concerned Black Parents Inc. and the NAACP Main Line Branch, lacked legal standing to join the suit.
The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia's executive director, Jennifer R. Clarke, said Monday that those hearings were held for the original plaintiffs and for several other students and that some were awarded money so they could take remedial and college courses. The Law Center and the law firm DLA Piper are representing the plaintiffs.
Several of the original plaintiffs have graduated from district high schools. But beyond individual remedies, Clarke said, "we want to establish a more objective method of identifying children for special education and also a different way in which children are being tracked into different courses . . . particularly so early on and particularly in math but also in other courses.
"We want parents to understand more about the process. And the changes we seek also have to do with how teachers and administrators treat African American kids. We know that if they have high expectations, the students will live up to them, and if they have low expectations, the students will live down to them."
The district, in its statement, said it had adopted measures to address the achievement gap, including steps to provide the necessary support for students and a review as they go into high school to "ensure appropriate and challenging placement." Its Minority Achievement Program, it said, "has yielded significant gains in achievement."
Also, "no students have been placed in special education that were not found eligible to receive services and whose parents did not approve in writing that the services be provided," it said.
"By any measure, the district has taken a leadership role in the effort to close the achievement gap and will continue to do so in the coming months and years."
Loraine Carter, president of Concerned Black Parents, said Monday that while there have been some positive changes, "what it came down to was: Is this the change needed to make a difference in the district or was this another Band-Aid?"
So far, she said, the scope of the changes has been inadequate. "We've been on a slow train going nowhere fast," she said.