GONZALES — A federal judge has ruled that the public school assignment plan on the east bank of Ascension Parish does not discriminate against minority students or deny them educational opportunities offered to other students in the parish.
The ruling, issued Thursday, settles a 6-year-old civil rights lawsuit filed against the Ascension Parish School Board by Darrin Kenny Lewis Sr., the father of two black children who were once in the East Ascension High School feeder system.
In a 41-page ruling dissecting the plaintiffs’ case, which was the subject of a three-day bench trial in February, U.S. District Chief Judge Brian Jackson in Baton Rouge found the plaintiffs’ evidence of discrimination wanting and ruled for the School Board, upholding the parish’s school assignment plan called “Option 2f.”
“Here, the record evidence casts considerable doubt on Lewis’s allegation that Option 2f has resulted in unequal educational opportunities for nonwhite students in the East Ascension High School attendance zone,” Jackson wrote.
He dismissed the suit with prejudice, which means it cannot be refiled.
School Superintendent Patrice Pujol said Friday that school officials are pleased with the judge’s ruling.
“Our school board and staff will work continuously to improve our practices and procedures to ensure continued student success regardless of the school a student attends,” Pujol said in a prepared statement.
Amid controversy, the School Board adopted the assignment plan on a 6-4 vote in January 2008 to handle growth pressures in the Dutchtown High School feeder system and, as school officials said then, maintain “unitary status.”
In 2004, a federal court ruled the system had attained unitary status and dismissed it from a long-standing desegregation suit. The status meant the system was no longer segregated by race, had removed all vestiges of the old segregated system and no longer required oversight from a federal judge.
But Lewis, who sued originally in state court in March 2008 before the lawsuit was moved to federal court, alleged that board members improperly considered race in setting district lines and modifying exclusive high school feeder systems.
Lewis maintained that the system resulted in a larger proportion of minority and low-income students at East Ascension High than in the feeder systems of neighboring Dutchtown and St. Amant high schools.
While Jackson found East Ascension does have higher minority and low-income student populations, he ruled that Option 2f is geographical in its assignment of students, based on their street addresses.
“Indeed, Lewis failed to point to any provision of Option 2f that classifies students on the basis of race,or uses race as a factor in school assignment,” he wrote.
Jackson also rejected plaintiffs’ claims that even if the plan were found racially neutral on paper, it had a disparate impact on minority students and was motivated by a discriminatory purpose.
Though the plaintiffs presented lower ACT and Advance Placement scores for East Ascension students at trial, Jackson found those data were not enough to support the claim that the higher numbers of minority and poor students lowered the quality of education at East Ascension.
Jackson also found the testimony of plaintiffs’ expert Percy Bates lacking. Jackson wrote that Bates may know about the general impacts of disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students on education but had not done an analysis specific to East Ascension. That failure made his opinions “meaningless,” Jackson wrote.
In fact, the judge pointed to school performance data supplied by the School Board showing that East Ascension’s scores on state accountability tests had improved since the adoption of Option 2f and that the high school is an A-rated school.
Though East Ascension’s total score is lower than those for A-rated Dutchtown and St. Amant high schools, Jackson found the plaintiffs failed to prove the differences were significant.
Without proof of a “disparate impact” on educational outcomes due to the higher numbers of minority and low-income students, Jackson found that evidence simply of more poor and minority students at East Ascension is not enough to say Option 2f violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause.
R. Ryland Percy III, lead plaintiff’s attorney, said the opinion came out late Thursday and he had not reviewed it fully yet.
But he said he is not ashamed of working for more than six years on a case that tried to change the fact that the East Ascension feeder system is composed entirely of Title I schools while the St. Amant and Dutchtown feeder systems do not have one.
“Unfortunately, the judge found there is not a judicial remedy for that situation,” he said Friday.