LPSS is under fire. What are the legal risks?

Superintendent Don Aguillard is named in a federal lawsuit alleging manipulation of the Schools of Choice program. Photo by Travis Gauthier

In 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Haik declared the Lafayette Parish School System desegregated following implementation of a plan that included the Schools of Choice program, putting to bed four decades of various legal battles over racial inequality in its schools. Nearly 12 years later, the same program is at the center of a federal lawsuit alleging manipulation and exclusionary practices.

Filed in April by Azadeh Yazdi, former Schools of Choice marketing director, the lawsuit claims Yazdi was harassed and ultimately terminated after expressing concerns regarding her supervisors’ practices. Yazdi alleges that Chief Academic Officer Annette Samec, former Schools of Choice Director Robin Olivier and administrative employee Barbara Pippin manipulated the program’s random student selection procedure and admitted students they favored into the programs.

Samec and Olivier, as well as World Language Specialist and Language Immersion Academy Director Tia LeBrun, are accused of dissuading Schools of Choice students from undergoing English as a Second Language screening and enrolling in the ESL program. The employees, Yazdi’s suit contends, pushed Spanish-speaking children toward the Spanish Immersion programs and away from ESL, which teaches students who are not native English speakers proficiency in English.

Six years before granting LPSS unitary status — meaning the school system was declared desegregated — Haik ruled that Lafayette schools were not in compliance with a 1967 court order to desegregate and ordered the closure of two predominantly black elementary schools and the transfer of six principals from majority-black schools to majority-white schools and vice versa.

The school board, according to former president and board member Mike Hefner, was split between fighting the ruling in court or correcting the schools. Ultimately, Hefner says, the school board chose to explore ways of adhering to the order, one of which came to be the Schools of Choice program. He describes the idea, presented by then-superintendent James Easton, and adopted by the board, as a “long-term approach.” Haik agreed to the program because he considered it minimally invasive.

“My main goal was not to mess up the Lafayette Parish School System,” Haik says. “It was, and, in my opinion, still is a very good school system.”

Housed within schools grades K-12 around Lafayette Parish, the Schools of Choice was implemented in 2002 and has grown to encompass nearly 30 programs. Students who meet a minimum GPA requirement may apply to any school within the district, regardless of zoning. For entry into the students’ selected program, parents are required to register their students online.

Haik’s ruling in 2006 ordered that LPSS publish an annual report on the racial composition of each school within the district, statistics behind the Schools of Choice’s policies and racial compositions and projected implementation dates until the school system completed its five-year and 10-year plans. What that timeline means is that as of 2016 the school system had officially completed the conditions of its unitary status.

However, Yazdi claims in the suit that the school system violated Haik’s decree, failing to deliver the statistics requested during its initial 10-year period. She also accuses Samec and Superintendent Don Aguillard of manipulating the statistics behind the Hinds County Report, an annual analysis of racial composition of schools, to misconstrue statistics surround N.P. Moss Elementary demographics.

Yazdi’s suit seeks damages from the four women, as well as Superintendent Donald Aguillard, whom she claims reprimanded her and eventually terminated her after she approached him with her concerns. The suit also lists the parish school board as defendants. Since the lawsuit was filed, The Current has confirmed that Olivier and Samec have both gone on medical leave; Olivier plans to retire July 1, and it’s unknown if Samec will return. Whether the leaves are related to the accusations is unclear.

But can the lawsuit jeopardize LPSS’ unitary status?

Haik’s ruling does not spell out requirements for the Schools of Choice program. Gary McGoffin, a Lafayette attorney who served on the then-Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce’s desegregation task force, says only a suit brought forth by either the Department of Justice or a private citizen could call that into question; neither of which he considers likely.

“The whole point of unitary status is that you get to run yourself again,” McGoffin says. “The administration and the school board get to make decisions about what’s best for the students.

“One lesson we learned during the deseg case was they weren’t here for quality of schools; they were here for equality of schools. Everybody either got the same opportunity for a good education or the same opportunity for a lousy education, as long as it was equal across the board for that opportunity.”

If other employees come forward with similar allegations of retaliation or termination, McGoffin says, Yazdi could choose to include them in the case; otherwise, he doesn’t see a “stampede to the courthouse.”

“Our desegregation suit is over. Period,” he says. “Everybody needs to get used to that fact. We got so conditioned for decades to being under federal supervision that that mentality persists.”