Arkadelphia News

Court declines school district summary judgment in racial lawsuit

By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian

In a recent opinion, the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Arkansas reviewed a motion by Arkadelphia Public Schools in a case where parents are alleging racial discrimination against their son.

The school district filed for summary judgment in the April 2022 case of H.W. and C.W. vs. Arkadelphia School Board. A federal judge last week denied the judgment, and the case is now headed to trial.

The plaintiffs in the suit allege that school administrators used racial prejudice in the placement of their son in the district’s Alternative Learning Experience. The student, a 13-year-old enrolled at Goza Middle School, was suspended in March and required to attend ALE despite his parents’ plea not to have him removed from the classroom.

Court documents indicate the student was recorded on a cell phone with a female in a Walmart bathroom, and that the video had been shared among students. The filing does not indicate the nature of the video but notes it originated on the female’s phone.

That video “appeared to be the immediate trigger” for the student’s referral to ALE. The court filing does note the plaintiff student had a history of disciplinary referrals, “mostly for minor infractions such as use of a cell phone.”

Following the video leak, Goza principal Cheryl Merk notified the parents that their son would be placed in ALE for “disruptive behavior” and for “poor grades” in two subjects, according to court documents.

Further, the document asserts that a black teacher, Keenesia Hall, opposed Merk’s decision and refused to sign the paperwork for the referral during a meeting between the parents and school administrators.

The parents allege in the suit that their son’s disciplinary history “is the result of disparate treatment” between black students and white students, with African-American students “tending to be written up more often for minor infractions like using cell phones or talking in the hall while equally culpable white students receive no disciplinary action.”

The school district argued in its motion that the parents failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson disagreed with the school district, ruling that the parents met their burden to show there are “genuine issues of material fact concerning whether defendants’ proffered reasons for their actions were pretext for discrimination.” The judge additionally noted that, because the conduct on the video happened off campus and was not filmed or distributed by the plaintiff’s son, the student was the “victim of the video’s distribution.”

The lawsuit names the school board as a whole, as well as its individual members, and then-superintendent Karla Neathery in addition to Merk. The school board in September rejected a $50,000 settlement proposed by the defendants. The case is set for trial in February.