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Pinellas gifted program admissions face legal test

The same firm suing Hillsborough and the state over race-based admissions is taking aim at Pinellas County schools.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2000


The Houston law firm that sued Hillsborough County and the state of Florida last year over using race as a factor in admissions to gifted programs plans to take on Pinellas County for the same reason.

Also, two more parents have decided to take the Hillsborough schools to court over the gifted program.

Two new lawsuits are expected to be filed today in Tampa federal court. In one, a St. Petersburg woman with a son at Maximo Elementary School is suing the Pinellas County schools and the state, alleging they denied her son admission to a gifted program because of his race. The boy is white.

In the other lawsuit, three sets of parents plan to sue Hillsborough County schools and the state for denying their children, who also are white, admission to gifted programs.

The argument in each lawsuit is that school districts have devised a two-track admissions system -- one for white students and the other for groups that historically have been underrepresented in gifted programs: African-Americans, Hispanics, low-income children.

"If you have different standards for different groups based on race, that's a problem," said Tracy Glenn, the Houston lawyer who is expected to file the federal lawsuits in Tampa today. Her law firm has made a name for itself in high-profile litigation involving challenges of race-based policies around the nation.

The two lawsuits are an outgrowth of a similar lawsuit filed last year against Hillsborough County schools. In that case, Raylene Worley said her daughter Stephanie was denied admission to a gifted program because her IQ scores were not high enough. But, she contended, Stephanie's scores would have been high enough if she were an African-American child.

Under a policy commonly referred to as "Plan B," Florida school districts allow minority and low-income students into gifted programs even if they have not met the strict IQ standard. The plan was devised to address the problem of certain groups of children being underrepresented in gifted classes.

Hillsborough County officials and the school district lawyer have argued that they implemented Plan B at the request of the state. Because they anticipated those arguments, the plaintiffs sued both the school districts and the state.

"The argument they make is that the state told us to do it this way," Glenn said. "That doesn't make it constitutional."

The Raylene Worley lawsuit from last year was filed in circuit court. The new lawsuits are being filed in federal court, and Worley is the plaintiff in one of those cases, along with two other parents. The case against the Hillsborough schools involves Worley, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at Brooker Elementary, a second-grader at Kenly Elementary and an anonymous middle school student. The Pinellas case involves the Maximo third-grader.

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