Ascension school discrimination suit set for trial Tuesday

A nearly 6-year-old federal lawsuit claiming a once-controversial Ascension Parish school assignment plan discriminated against minority students by funneling at-risk students into the East Ascension High feeder system heads to trial Tuesday in Baton Rouge.

Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson denied motions on Tuesday from the plaintiff, Darrin K. Lewis Sr., and the parish School Board asking that Jackson rule without a trial.

Attorneys on both sides said Friday the case instead appears headed to trial 8:30 a.m. after they met with Jackson in a final conference Thursday.

“We are definitely starting Tuesday,” said Bob Hammonds, one of the School Board’s attorneys.

The trial caps an up-and-down route for the case through the legal system. A split decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November 2011 revived key discrimination claims after the case was thrown out at the District Court level in 2009.

At issue Tuesday will be whether the school assignment plan, known as Option 2f, had a discriminatory impact on minority students in the East Ascension feeder system and whether the School Board acted with discriminatory intent in adopting the plan on Jan. 15, 2008.

Lewis, a black father who had two children in the East Ascension feeder zone in 2008, sued the school system in March of that year, two months after a divided School Board adopted the assignment plan amid months of public controversy.

Lewis contended the School Board was trying to maintain a disproportionately high number of minority and at-risk students in the East Ascension feeder system. As a result, Lewis claimed, minority students at East Ascension would not be “afforded educational opportunities equal to those available to the students at either Dutchtown High School or St. Amant High School.”

Educators use the term “at-risk students” to refer to students from low-income households who receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Jackson, who will hear the trial, has told attorneys he does not plan to rule at the conclusion of the three-day proceeding but will take the case under advisement, attorneys said.

Lewis is expected to waive his right to a jury trial Tuesday, minutes say.

Should Lewis, who has one child remaining in the system, prevail, it’s not clear what Jackson would order.

In motions, school attorneys argued Lewis could be due some monetary damages but nothing more. Lewis’ attorneys countered Jackson should issue an injunction keeping the Option 2f plan from being implemented any longer.

“Our goal has never been about money,” said Jill Craft, one of the lead plaintiff’s attorneys. “It’s always been about doing the right thing. That could take many forms, one of which could be an injunction.”

How that would work is not clear.

In the six full school years since Option 2f was adopted, the school system has added another 2,218 students — on average about 370 per year — and built and opened six new primary schools, according to school data.

Shifts of school attendances zones have proven controversial in Ascension as families from East Baton Rouge and other parishes often move to burgeoning Ascension residential areas with eyes on specific feeder systems.

The Option 2f plan was no different, and Lewis’ claims were shared by other parents in 2008, The Advocate reported then.

Even current School Board President Troy Gautreau, who opposed the Option 2f plan in favor of another, said at the time that every time the school system redraws school district lines, East Ascension High School “gets the short end of the stick.”

The school system disputed the charge that more “at-risk” students were being sent to East Ascension, arguing that officials were trying to find a way to even out imbalances due to student population growth in Dutchtown.

The system had been under a federal desegregation order previously, and officials said they were trying to maintain the unitary status the system granted in 2004.

By 2006, school officials noted, Dutchtown Middle had more than 1,000 students when no other east bank middle school had more than 730.

Attorneys for Lewis and the School Board have presented Jackson with different sets of data on whether at-risk populations at East Ascension, St. Amant and Dutchtown highs, the parish’s three east bank high schools, have risen since the 2008 assignment plan took effect.

The plaintiff’s attorneys claim East Ascension has suffered academically since then, lagging behind St. Amant and Dutchtown in ACT and school performance scores.

School system officials point out, however, that East Ascension is A-rated under the state accountability system.

The trial is likely to see reams of school data introduced, as well as demographic presentations and documents board members looked at in 2008. The plaintiff’s attorneys also plan to call School Board members who acknowledged in depositions that race and socioeconomics were in the mix when they decided how to alter school attendance zones in 2008.