Fifth Circuit Rules for Parent in Racial Desegregation Case

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 09, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

For Louisiana lawyers, and other LSU fans who practice in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the world seemed to stop last week in anticipation of the Biggest. Game. Ever.

The courts, however, continued to crank out opinions while the rest of us contemplated tailgating and judicial confirmations.

The Fifth Circuit ruled last week in Lewis v. Ascension Parish School Board that race was a motivating factor in assigning students to three Ascension Parish Schools: East Ascension High, Dutchtown High, and St. Amant High.

Ascension Parish School District operates four high schools in Southeast Louisiana. Since at least 1972, the District has assigned students to these schools through an attendance-zone-based "feeder plan," which allows students to matriculate together.

In 2004, a federal district court dismissed the District's longstanding racial desegregation case and declared the District unitary after finding that all vestiges of the prior compulsory dual school system had been eliminated to the extent practicable. The District was thereafter able to assign students within the school district as necessary, but the District maintained its pre-unitary status feeder plan.

In 2006, the enrollment of Dutchtown Middle School, a Dutchtown High School feeder school, rose to over 1,000 students and caused severe overcrowding. The District reassigned 450 Dutchtown Middle School students to other nearby schools to alleviate the over-crowding. In re-allotting the students, the school district focused on maintaining its "unitary" status and moving the fewest kids possible.

Darrin Lewis subsequently sued the District on behalf of his children, claiming that the District's reassignment placed a greater number of at-risk students in the East Ascension High feeder zone, and created a disproportionately large non-white enrollment at the school, leaving Dutchtown and St. Amant High predominantly white. Lewis claimed that the school district discriminated against minority students by placing more at-risk students into their schools.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Lewis. The court held that the district could not address overcrowding in Dutchtown High School by disadvantaging one race over another in the assignment of at-risk students, even if the District had a "benign" motive of maintaining unitary status.

Many Southern school districts are still under federal desegregation orders. Are you surprised that the Fifth Circuit is still hearing racial desegregation cases 57 years after Brown v. Board of Education?

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