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Long-Running Special Education Lawsuit in Pa. Gets Trial Date

A district judge has set a Nov. 1 trial date for a lawsuit that alleges that some black students in the 6,900-student Lower Merion School District were improperly tracked into special education or lower-level academic classes.

In 2007, eight black parents represented by the Public interest Law Center of Philadelphia, tried to file a class-action lawsuit, Blunt et al. v. Lower Merion School District, arguing that the black students throughout the district routinely faced inappropriate academic placements.

The 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires districts to submit information to the state on a variety of different indicators, including whether they have a "disproportionate" enrollment of minorities in special education placements. According to the 2008-09 report, the most recent report available online, Lower Merion has a black student population of about 8 percent, and about 14 percent of the students in special education are black. However, the report notes that the district was found that year to be free of racial and ethnic disproportionality due to inappropriate identification.

District Chief Judge Harvey Bartle III ruled in 2009 that the remedies that the plaintiffs were seeking were too individualized to be eligible for class-action status, said an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also said that the plaintiffs had not exhausted other remedies available to them, such as due process hearings.

The public interest lawyers representing the students say in a statement that mediation in the case has failed and that only a lawsuit can bring about sustained change. Even though the lawsuit does not have class action status, they are continue the litigation on behalf of the original students involved, some of whom have graduated from school. "We know that within the LMSD, there are individuals who care and who want this situation solved. But the LMSD board needs to decisively act to solve this problem," said Sonja Kerr, the director of the law center's Disabilities Rights Project.

In a statement, the district said that the plaintiffs are ignoring the district's wide-ranging attempts to close the achievement gap between black and white students.

"The District has acknowledged, through its Strategic Plan, historical concerns surrounding minority achievement and supports. In response, 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," the statement concluded.

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