East Ascension High problems detailed by former student

Lawsuit claims discrimination

A former East Ascension High School student expelled from that school and an alternative school testified Wednesday that putting a large number of low-income students at one school is a recipe for failure.

“I feel like I deserve another chance. You put a bunch of (low-income) people together, and they’re not going to do good,” said Oscar K. Varnado, 20, a plaintiff in a lawsuit that claims the Ascension Parish School Board’s 2008 school assignment plan discriminates against minority and low-income students.

Varnado conceded under direct questioning by Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson that some of his elementary and middle school classmates did graduate from EAHS.

“I never was a good kid,” Varnado acknowledged earlier while being questioned by Bob Hammonds, one of the School Board’s attorneys.

Hammonds asked Jackson to dismiss the 6-year-old lawsuit after the plaintiffs — Varnado, his father, Darrin K. Lewis Sr., and Lewis’ 15-year-old son — rested their case late Wednesday afternoon.

The judge deferred ruling on the request and reiterated his intention to allow post-trial written arguments after the trial concludes.

The defense is scheduled to present its case Thursday. The judge trial began Tuesday.

The lawsuit alleges the School Board, which approved the Option 2f redistricting plan by a 6-4 vote, improperly considered race in setting district lines and in modifying exclusive high school feeder systems. The process resulted in a larger proportion of minority and low-income students at EAHS than at its neighboring east bank high schools, Dutchtown and St. Amant, the suit argues.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also claim the higher minority and low-income populations at EAHS deprived other minority students of educational opportunities.

Percy Bates, an educational psychologist from Detroit, backed up that claim Wednesday, testifying that a concentration of low-income students and/or minority students adversely affects teachers and students.

“The tendency (of teachers in such settings) is often to move away from the school,” he said, adding teacher departures lead to an unstable academic environment and lower student performance.

Bates admitted under questioning by School Board attorney Pam Dill that he has never looked at Option 2f.

He later told plaintiffs’ attorney Jill Craft that the Ascension Parish school system, which was under a federal desegregation order until 2004, appeared to move backward a mere four years later when the school assignment plan was adopted in January 2008.

Scott Duplechein, the School Board’s demographic specialist, testified he had no such experience when the board hired him in 2005.

“You had absolutely no prior experience whatsoever with demographics, did you?” plaintiffs’ attorney Andre’ Gauthier asked.

“No sir,” the St. Amant High graduate replied.

“You had no idea what you were getting yourself into, did you?” Gauthier pressed further.

“Correct,” Duplechein answered.

Varnado, who has a conviction for illegal carrying of a firearm and possession of drugs and is now in a job corps program, likened his school experience at East Ascension High to “a big playground.”

“A lot of fighting. A lot of drama,” he testified. “Nobody’s really paying attention (in class) because everybody’s doing their own thing. It did take my concentration off my class work.”

Lewis, who said Varnado is one of his eight children, said his 15-year-son is at EAHS. That son is in some honors courses, but his grades are terrible, his father said.

“I don’t think he’s getting the proper teaching he needs,” Lewis testified. “They’re not teaching him like they care. They’re teaching to get a paycheck.”

Lewis, who is black, also noted that the student body at EAHS is majority black.

He previously stated in a deposition in the case that teachers, administrators and counselors — rather than the makeup of a student body — determine the quality of educational programs. Hammonds asked if Lewis if he agrees with that proposition.

“To a certain extent,” Lewis responded.

Lewis, who lives two blocks from EAHS, also said he never asked that Varnado be moved to another school.

Jackson is being asked to forbid Option 2f from being implemented any longer. Lewis testified the suit is not about money.

At issue is whether the redistricting plan had a disparate impact on minority students in the East Ascension feeder system and whether the School Board acted with discriminatory intent in adopting the plan.

School system officials note that EAHS is A-rated under the state accountability system.