NYC high school admissions policy violates Civil Rights Act: lawsuit

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By Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech

New York City’s process of screening applicants into some elite high schools violates the Civil Rights Act, according to a federal complaint filed against the city’s Department of Education earlier this week.

The youth advocacy group Teens Take Charge filed the lawsuit to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and claims that this process has a discriminatory effect by keeping a disproportionally high number of Black and Hispanic students out of some elite high schools despite that not being the intent of the process.

For years, members of Teens Take Charge have protested, staged strikes, hosted roundtables, and staged sit-ins for education equality in the country’s largest and most heavily screened school system. More than 20% of New York City middle and high schools screen using grades, attendance records, punctuality, test scores, and sometimes interviews and portfolios to determine admission. Something the young advocates say perpetuates racial segregation in city schools.

The complaint, filed on behalf of the teen organization by the New York University Civil Rights Clinic, argues on the grounds that the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits programs using federal funds to use admissions policies that would have the effect of subjecting people to discrimination on the basis of race.

The lawsuit comes as COVID-19 places the future of public school admission in limbo since officials have primarily been focused on reopening schools during the ongoing pandemic. During an interview with WNYC last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the city would release updated admissions policies soon.

“These policies are racially discriminatory in normal times and unconscionable during a pandemic that has disproportionally impacted communities of color,” said Teens Take Charge member Sophie Mode, a senior at Millennium Brooklyn High School in Park Slope.

During a Zoom meeting ahead of the lawsuit filing, Mode’s fellow TTC member Idalia Tlatelpa used the racial make up of Millennium’s incoming freshman class to highlight how screening creates student bodies that do not accurately represent the city’s diversity.

Black and Hispanic students only made up 20% of offers for entrance into Millennium’s class of 2025 although 65% of the city’s public school population. Tlatelpa said that the difference in racial make-up between Millennium and the three other high schools housed in the same building explaining that once students go through the front doors the mostly Asian and white students go upstairs to Millennium while Black and Hispanic students head downstairs.

TTC’s lawsuit references the admission data of 14 elite public high schools to support their claim that screening creates a racial disparity.

Just over 3,970 eighth-grade students applied for admission into Bard High School Early College in the Lower East Side last year with 20% of applicants identifying as Asian, 19% as Black, 24% as Latino, 21% as white and 4% as other, according to DOE data included in the complaint. Out of the 279 admitted students, 23% were Asian, 10% were Black, 15% were Latino, 30% were white and 4% identified as other.

“New York City uses middle and high school admissions screens to partition one of the nation’s most diverse public school populations into highly segregated schools by siphoning off white students into a few well-resourced schools while packing Black and Latinx students, as well as students from under-represented Asian ethnicities, into poorly-resourced schools,” the complaint stated.

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