The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has agreed to investigate allegations that the Upper Dublin School District discriminated against black students by disproportionately giving them out-of-school suspensions, contacting police over infractions, and placing them in lower-track courses.
The complaint was filed last year by the Public Interest Law Center on behalf of a group of parents who alleged that African Americans made up 7.3 percent of the Upper Dublin student population, but received 45 percent of the suspensions in 2014-15, 48 percent in 2013-14, and 63 percent in 2012-13.
Federal investigators declined to look into two other allegations: that no black students were enrolled in gifted classes in the district's four elementary schools and middle school in 2014-15, and that they were harassed at the middle and high schools, creating a hostile environment for them.
The investigation is "a big deal," said lawyer Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg of the Public Interest Law Center, which was notified on Dec. 7. "You can never be sure when you make these allegations if the Office of Civil Rights is going to take it seriously and vigorously pursue it. We hope that the school district sees that this is not going away."
Superintendent Deborah S. Wheeler said in a statement Tuesday that the district had received a letter from the Department of Education and was compiling information it had requested on academic tracking, discipline, and corrective actions that had been taken.
Since the complaint was filed in November 2015, the district has said it would restructure its tracking system, said Tina Lawson, a member of Concerned African American Parents, which has about 100 members. "But we have not seen evidence of [the change] we're looking for, so we think it's a good thing that the government is going to investigate."
The group has urged the district to eliminate the lowest of its three tracks, which has a disproportionate number of black students.
Wheeler said the district eliminated the lowest track in ninth grade English, social studies, and science last September, and will do the same in 10th grade classes next September.
The group also wants the district to allow students who meet academic requirements to take honors and Advanced Placement courses without a teacher recommendation, as is now required.
Lawson said black students with high grades are often turned down for the higher-level courses.
"It's up to the teacher's discretion," she said. "I've had people with As and Bs and they were not recommended. . . . They'll say things like, 'We don't think your child can do the work. We think they're better suited for this course.' "
Parents can override those decisions by submitting an "Against Educational Advice" form.
Lawson said parents believe that unfair discipline is still a problem, but are hoping to get more information from the investigation.
"It will bring everything out," she said.