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The dismissal of a lawsuit that challenged the city school district’s alternative education programs for delinquent students was proper because of the schools’ legitimate interest in keeping violent students out of regular classrooms and in preparing returning delinquent students for readmission to regular schools. The Juvenile Law Center, which represented the plaintiffs in the class action D.C., et al. v. School District of Philadelphia, has already appealed the late January decision to the Commonwealth Court. At issue is the collective fate of some 1,258 students, according to school district data, transferred to alternative education programs since the 2002 passage of Act 88, also called the “transition statute.” Act 88 mandates that “first-class” school district students adjudicated delinquent (or found guilty of certain crimes as adults) not be returned directly to regular classrooms upon returning from residential placement. A school district must be home to more than 1 million people to be designated first class. Philadelphia is the state’s only school district to qualify. According to the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court’s memorandum opinion in D.C., the three plaintiffs were adjudicated delinquent for offenses such as marijuana possession and unauthorized use of an automobile. They all successfully completed court-ordered residential placements and sought to return to their regular high school programs. The plaintiffs charged that the state statute violates the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Due Process Clause and ban on special legislation, as well as the federal Constitution’s Equal Protection and Due Process clauses, according to the opinion. “It is clear that the Philadelphia school system is experiencing, on a daily basis, pervasive and undermining acts of disruption and violence within its classrooms,” Judge C. Darnell Jones II wrote in D.C. “It is also clear that the school district has a legitimate interest in not only removing violent and disruptive students from regular classrooms, but also in ensuring that students returning from juvenile placement are properly evaluated and prepared for their return to a regular classroom. The transition statute was passed by the General Assembly to address these serious concerns. . . . After careful consideration, the court finds that the transition statute survives all of the plaintiffs’ constitutional challenges.” The opinion begins its analysis of the plaintiff’s first count by noting that while Article III, Section 32 of the Pennsylvania Constitution bars the enactment of “special laws” designed to benefit individuals or corporations, Article III, Section 20 does permit the General Assembly to make classifications based upon population. “The plaintiffs argue that the transition statute is special legislation because it is local or special to the Philadelphia School District,” Jones wrote. “The Philadelphia School District is the only school district affected by this legislation because it is the only school district of the first class.” Because the statute is uniform in its treatment and does not arbitrarily distinguish between members of the class, the opinion states, it survives a Section 32 challenge. “To ignore population as a legitimate basis for classification in this case would be to deprive the General Assembly of the ability to address the needs of the school district with the largest population in the commonwealth,” Jones wrote. Addressing the plaintiffs’ state equal protection claim, the court dismissed their call for a “strict scrutiny test” of the potential violation, instead opting for a “rational basis test.” “Because the plaintiffs are members of such a large school district,” Jones wrote, “which poses unique challenges to administrators, teachers and the students themselves, the court finds that there is a rational relationship between the transition statute and school districts of the first class.” Responding to the plaintiffs’ charge of a federal Due Process Clause violation, the court found that the plaintiffs had mischaracterized their transfer to an alternative education program as disciplinary in nature. “It was not the transition statute that removed the plaintiffs from their regular classroom setting,” Jones wrote. “Rather, the removal occurred at the time the plaintiffs were adjudicated delinquent and ordered to placement.” The plaintiffs’ fourth charge, according to the opinion, was that their unchallengeable assignments to alternative education programs harmed their reputation, amounting to a violation of Pennsylvania’s Due Process Clause. “The school district and the General Assembly assert there is no harm inflicted on the plaintiffs’ reputations as a result of their assignments to an alternate education setting,” Jones wrote. “The essence of their arguments is that the juvenile adjudication is solely responsible for any harm to the plaintiffs’ reputations . . . The school district further asserts that all the procedural protections necessary were afforded at the juvenile adjudication. The court agrees with the school district.” The school district’s attorney, Scott F. Cooper of Blank Rome, said that the school district will go along with whatever laws are enacted by the General Assembly, but was pleased with the provisions set out by Act 88. “It is an important law in giving the most at-risk students a chance to come back to the education system and make meaningful progress toward graduating,” Cooper said. Cooper said that other attorneys involved in the case included John Shellenberger from the attorney general’s Philadelphia office and Linda Shorey, of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart’s Harrisburg office, on behalf of the presiding officers of the General Assembly. Marsha Levick, legal director for the Juvenile Law Center, said that locations of the few alternative schools available to Act 88 students create a potential for high rates of truancy. “These alternative schools are few in number and are only in particular communities,” Levick said. “That not only causes these kids to endure a stigma, but also places on them an additional burden in getting to school at a point in time when that’s the last thing we want for them.” Fernando Gallard, a spokesman for the school district, said that there are six alternative programs located throughout the city that are open to Act 88 students, three of which are at or beyond full capacity. (Copies of the 43-page opinion in D.C., et al. v. School District of Philadelphia , PICS No. 04-0281, are available from The Legal Intelligencer . Please refer to the order form on Page 10.)

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