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Challenge to Lynn's race policy is revived

High court buoys foes of school transfer rule

Lawyers representing a group of Lynn parents who began challenging the city's desegregation plan eight years ago revived their legal battle this week, days after the Supreme Court declared similar plans unconstitutional in Seattle and Kentucky.

The brief filed in US District Court in Boston late Tuesday sets the stage for the first challenge of a race-based school assignment policy in Massachusetts since last week's Supreme Court decision. The justices' June 28 ruling could affect roughly 20 school-assignment plans in Massachusetts, as well as the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity , which has bused minority students to affluent suburban schools since 1966.

Chester Darling , the lawyer who previously brought a suit by Lynn parents all the way to the Supreme Court, hopes that a successful challenge will prompt other Massachusetts school districts to end their desegregation programs. Under Lynn's current plan, students requesting to attend another school can be denied if the transfer would change the racial balance at the school. In 2005, the Supreme Court declined to review an Appeals Court decision that upheld Lynn's longstanding policy.

"We want to go in there and have the district court judge in the federal court say, 'OK, you're right,' " Darling said yesterday. "What benefit of integration in kindergarten do you get if you force a white kid to sit next to a black kid? There isn't any."

Nadine Cohen, an attorney with the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, who intervened in the previous Lynn case, said she is confident the city's plan will still withstand constitutional scrutiny.

"I do not think that the Lynn plan is unconstitutional. I think that it's a very narrowly tailored plan," Cohen said. "Race is a problem, race has to be part of the solution, and if we're trying to remedy segregated schools, we need to be able to do that by taking race into account."

In last week's decision, the Supreme Court ruled that desegregation plans in Seattle and Kentucky's Jefferson County discriminated against white students who were denied openings at schools that were available to minority students. In the 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the goal of racial balance cannot justify considering the race of students in school assignment.

"To the extent the objective is sufficient diversity so that students see fellow students as individuals rather than solely as members of a racial group, using means that treat students solely as members of a racial group is fundamentally at cross-purposes with that end," Roberts wrote in the decision.

Based on this decision, Darling said, he is hopeful that the new challenge will meet with a better outcome for his clients.

"In the cases last week, they said no . . . you can't move children around because of their color. And that is the same rationale as Brown v. Board," Darling said , referring to the landmark 1954 ruling that outlawed racial segregation in schools . "It's racial balancing, pure and simple, and that has been held time and time again to be constitutionally inappropriate."

Yesterday, Patricia M. Capano, a school committee member, said Lynn officials were waiting to hear how state Attorney General Martha Coakley would interpret the Supreme Court decision.

Lynn's current plan affects its 18 public elementary schools, which draw from small pockets of the district, more than its three high schools, said Capano.

"It's a balanced system right now," Capano said. "Our neighborhoods are sometimes very cultural- and very race-oriented. So, if you keep a very low-economic neighborhood going to the same school, then you get an unbalanced school -- and that's what we fear."

Melissa Sherman, a spokeswoman for Coakley , declined to comment on the brief.

"We're aware that he filed some papers yesterday with the court, and the office plans to review those filings," Sherman said.

The memorandum asks the court to strike down Lynn's policy, saying that at least one of the plaintiffs in the 2005 case is still subject to the policy.

"Without such relief, the plaintiffs would be the only school children in America who lack the equal-protection rights established" in last week's Supreme Court decision, the brief states. "Both Lynn and Seattle face nearly identical de facto segregated housing patterns. In both cities, white children are concentrated in the north and minority children concentrated in the south."

But, despite the precedent, Darling said the case will probably face an uphill battle in a federal court based in such a liberal state.

"This is so political. There are so many people in the race business," he said. "This is a tough venue up here for the First Amendment and equal protection."

April Yee can be reached at ayee@globe.com.

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