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Judge Rules in Favor of Robinson v. Wentzell, Says Magnet School Discrimination Case Can Move Forward

By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

HARTFORD — U.S. District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill on Thursday ruled that a lawsuit against the state and city of Hartford can move forward in challenging the racial quota for magnet schools aimed at integrating metropolitan area schools deemed racially imbalanced.

Judge Underhill gave the green light for plaintiffs to proceed in federal court with the Robinson v. Wentzell case, which claims that race-based enrollment quotas in public magnet schools “unjustly and unconstitutionally deny black and Hispanic children on wait list access to empty available seats in high quality magnet schools.”

At issue is the state law that mandates interdistrict magnet schools to reserve 25 percent of the classroom seats for white or Asian students. Those seats sometimes remain empty while black and Hispanic students are on a wait list because of losing out of a lottery system, advocates for the plaintiffs said. The lawsuit claims the lottery system is discriminatory.

The plaintiffs see the court’s recent ruling as a major victory.

“Yesterday was a huge victory for educational freedom and justice for Hartford black and Hispanic children and their parents,” said Gwen Samuel, Founder and President of the Connecticut Parents Union, an advocacy group based in Meriden.

LaShawn Robinson is the lead plaintiff in the case filed Feb. 15, 2018 by seven families. The California-based Pacific Legal Foundation filed the lawsuit on Robinson’s behalf because she believed the enrollment process for magnet schools was stacked against her son, who is black.

Robinson said she applied for her son to attend a magnet school but was denied for three consecutive years until her son, Jared, dropped out of his neighborhood school.

The lawsuit is a continuation for the long struggle for quality education for all students in a state with one of the highest achievement gap in the nation.

The state was confronted with this issue in the Sheff v. O’Neill case in 1989 when a coalition of parents and students filed a lawsuit that claimed the state denied Hartford students their civil rights in allowing them to remain in segregated schools based on race and socio-economic factors.

Robinson’s case attacks the state’s approach to a remedy for the 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling in the Sheff case, which mandates integrated schools.

“Incredibly, the state incentivizes public schools to deny Black and Hispanic children opportunities for an exceptional education for no reason other than skin color,” said Oliver Dunford, a Pacific Legal attorney for Robinson and the other plaintiffs. “This lawsuit aims to protect equal access to education for all children in Connecticut.”

The state and other intervenors, including advocates for the Sheff plaintiffs, asked the court to dismiss the case. Dennis Parker, one of the attorneys on the Sheff legal team, said at a forum in January that the Robinson case was an attempt to nullify the Sheff victory of having more than 40 magnet schools aimed at an integrated and quality educational experience for Connecticut students.

“Things we thought we won, the victories we thought prevailed in civil rights and in other areas are extremely fragile,” said Parker, who serves as executive director of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. “They are not permanent. We don’t have the luxury of saying, we won this, we can move on to the next problem because those basic wins are being attacked on a daily basis by this administration and by others outside of the administration.”

Samuel sees it differently.

“Both the State of Connecticut, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ACLU Racial Justice Program, and the Center for Children’s Advocacy, as Sheff v. O’Neill intervenors, tried very hard to have this case thrown out of court on a variety of grounds—forgetting that every child in Connecticut regardless of their race has a right to access safe and quality educational opportunities.”

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