There is a trial pending in the U.S Middle District Court for Louisiana which could radically affect Ascension’s public high schools and the students who attend them. The plaintiff, Darrin Kenny Lewis, filed suit against Ascension Parish School Board and claims that the Board’s 2008 rezoning plan discriminates against non-white students attending East Ascension HS.
In 2006, Dutchtown Middle School’s (DMS) student enrollment had ballooned to over 1,000 at a time when no other east bank Ascension Parish middle school counted more than 730 students enrolled. DMS is one of Dutchtown HS’sfeeder schools and, soon enough, DHS witnessed its own overcrowding issues. Ascension’s population boom over the last several years was concentrated in the northern end of the parish and the influx of new residents has continued unabated.
Ascension Parish School Board was forced to take action to alleviate the problems facing Dutchtown and its feeder schools. At the time, Dutchtown’s feeder schools were DMS and Prairieville Middle which were in turn fed by three primary schools, Duplessis, Dutchtown and Oak Grove.
Then APSB Superintendent Donald Songy and his staff explored a number of options to re-zone with the goal to move 450 students from Dutchtown Middle, and thus out of Dutchtown HS’ feeder system, into other east bank schools with capacity for growth. A “Growth Impact Committee” was impaneled and tasked with devising a plan which would address the overcrowding at Dutchtown and its feeder system “with minimal impact on residents.”
The Board performed a demographic analysis of all east bank students based upon their physical residence in order to project effects of the various rezoning options. After several contentious public hearings, the Board whittled the options down to four and generated a “Statistical Analysis of Options 1, 2, 2f and 3.” This document contained the current enrollment of each school in the district and included the percentage of African-American and “at-risk students.” The document also projected the same data for each school for the four options under consideration. “At-risk students” are those who qualify for free or reduced price school lunches.
At the Board’s January 15, 2008 meeting Member (now Board President) Troy Gautreau told the audience that the Board’s primary objective was to enact a plan which would maintain “our current unitary status” while “moving the least amount of kids as possible.” Unitary status simply means that the longtime federal desegregation case which the Board had long operated under had been settled in 2004, and Ascension no longer had a dual system, one for African-Americans and one for whites.
Eventually the Board opted for 2f which moved Duplessis Primary, which had over 40% “at-risk” student enrollment, out of Dutchtown feeder system and into East Ascension HS. Schools with at least 40% “at-risk” students are designated Title I schools, and its move meant that every school in EA’s feeder zone is a Title 1 school. Board members who voted for Option 2f uniformly admitted that they intended to maintain the racial balance between the east bank high schools.
EA’s enrollment was the lowest among the three high schools and could absorb the greatest number of students from the former DHS feeder system.
Darrin Lewis sued the Board alleging that its adoption of 2f was done “to ensure that East Ascension High School (and its feeder schools) would maintain a disproportionately large non-white minority population, leaving the remaining two East Bank schools as predominantly white.”
Further, 2f “would ensure that the non-white minority students at East Ascension High School would not…be afforded educational opportunities equal to those available to the students at either Dutchtown High School or St. Amant High School.”
Percy Bates, PhD, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, is an expert witness on Lewis’ behalf. Dr. Bates stated in an affidavit that “Extensive research shows that the concentration of at-risk students in one school, as under Option 2f, adversely affects the achievement of students at the school.”
Lewis claims, essentially, that minority students at East Ascension are being discriminated against based upon their race by a disproportionate influx of “at-risk students” into their school.
“To maintain the integrity of the two better performing east bank high schools,” argues Lewis Memorandum in Opposition to (the Board’s) Motion for Summary Judgment, the Board, acting with a discriminatory purpose, disproportionately funneled a high percentage of at-risk students into the poorly performing EAHS feeder system, which already contained the highest concentration of both at-risk and minority students of the three east bank school systems. The Board’s implementation of Option 2f has reverberated in a significant discriminatory impact against the minority students of both EAHS and its feeder system by depriving these students of access to educational opportunities equal to those afforded to the students who attend the parish’s other two predominantly non-minority and non-at-risk east bank school systems.”
He filed suit in state court, but the case was removed to federal court upon the Board’s motion.
The District Court granted the Board’s motion for summary judgment dismissing Lewis’ suit. It found that Option 2f was “race-neutral” on its face and Lewis had not presented evidence of discriminatory motive by the Board or discriminatory impact by the implementation of 2f. Lewis appealed to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeal which reversed the District Court’s findings and remanded the case for further evidentiary proceedings.
The 5th Circuit did not find that the Board’s actions amounted to discrimination, only that more evidence was needed.
It held the District Court’s grant of summary judgment in error, “Because factual questions exist as to whether Option 2f had both a racially discriminatory motive and a disparate impact.”
The 5th Circuit concluded “No doubt the district (the Board) had a responsibility to address overcrowding in Dutchtown High School. It could not, however, do so by assigning individual students among the schools based upon disadvantaging one race over another in the assignment of at-risk students, even if the motive in doing so is the ‘benign’ motive of ‘maintaining unitary status.’”
The matter is scheduled for jury trial on September 23, 2013 before Judge Brian Jackson in the U.S. Middle District Court. Judge Jackson seems to have framed the issues thusly:
- Whether Option 2f employs a racial classification or is facially neutral;
- Whether the Board acted with a discriminatory purpose when it adopted 2f; and
- Whether Option 2f has had a disproportionately adverse effect on non-white students. Specifically, does 2f place a disproportionate number of at-risk students at East Ascension and its feeder schools thereby denying non-white students educational opportunities equal to those available to white students at other east bank schools.
Should the jury ultimately determine that the Board acted with a discriminatory purpose, the burden of proof shifts to the Board to prove that its implementation of Option 2f was “narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling interest,” i.e., to alleviate overcrowding at Dutchtown. Absent a discriminatory purpose, and the Board need only show a rational basis for Option 2f.
“The data employed by the School Board in redrawing the lines was clearly race-based,” contends Lewis’ attorney Andre’ Gauthier. “The intent was indisputably to maintain the racial percentages at the respective schools as well as the ratio of economically disadvantaged, at-risk, students. The Board’s own projections demonstrated that EA’s at-risk student population would only increase by Option 2f’s implementation and it certainly has.”
Gauthier pointed to the 2012 ACT scores to demonstrate his argument.
“EA’s average score is 19.5 compared to Dutchtown’s 21.8 and St. Amant’s 21.5,” he said. “The national average is 21.1 and the state average is 20.3. My client feels that his kids, as well as their classmates at EA are being deprived of their right to educational opportunity and wants this situation rectified.”
The Board maintains that it did nothing wrong and its adoption of Option 2f had no discriminatory purpose.
“In fact,” said current Board Superintendent Patrice Pujol, “EA’s school performance scores have only improved since 2008. It is an ‘A’ rated school.”
It is not debatable that EA’s percentage of minority and at-risk students has risen since the Board’s rezoning but so have the percentages for Dutchtown and St. Amant. At the time of rezoning EA’s minority students comprised 42% of its enrollment as compared to 12% for St. Amant and 25% for Dutchtown. Comparatively, the respective minority enrollments at the high schools are relatively stable.
It is unknown what remedial measures the court will enact should the jury agree with Lewis’ claims. Theoretically, the Board’s implementation of Option 2f could be enjoined, and the Board may have to go back to the drawing board, possibly under the supervision of the federal court.