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U.S. Supreme Court Declines Case on Race and Special Education

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to step into a case involving allegations that a Pennsylvania school district systematically funneled a disproportionate number of African-American students into special education.

The justices refused without comment to hear the appeal of seven students and their parents in Allston v. Lower Merion School District (Case No. 14-926).

The black families had sued the 7,000-student Lower Merion district under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars race discrimination in federally funded programs, alleging that the students were wrongly classified as having learning disabilities and kept in special education for years without re-evaluation.

Over a sharp dissent, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, ruled 2-1 last year that while black students were placed in special education in disproportionate numbers, there was no evidence the district intentionally discriminated based on race. (The lengthy decision, which I reported on here, comes with its one table of contents.)

Black students made up 8 percent of the district's enrollment but 16 percent of those in special education during a five-year period at issue, court papers show. (White students were 83 percent of enrollment and made up 80 percent of those in special education.) The suit also alleged that the school system tolerated negative racial stereotyping of African-American students.

The dissenting judge on the 3rd Circuit panel said the allegations of racial bias were "not pretty," and said the case deserved to go to trial.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the black families said "the misidentification of minority students in education placements has been recognized as a nationwide problem for years."

The school district filed a brief arguing that the 3rd Circuit had made a correct ruling based on the facts. It said the parents of the seven students in the suit had consented to placing their children in special education and that there was no evidence that those black students were subject to different testing protocols or processes for drawing up individualized education programs than white students in the district.

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