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Court Rejects Race-Based Admissions

November 19, 1998

BOSTON (AP) _ A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the race-based admissions policy at the prestigious Boston Latin School is unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Boston Latin to immediately admit 15-year-old Sarah Wessmann, a white student who complained that she was illegally denied admission in favor of less-qualified minorities.

A lower court judge in May had upheld Boston Latin’s admissions policy.

Sarah’s father, Henry Wessmann, said that when his daughter heard about the decision, ``she had a big smile on her face. There was a happiness about getting what she achieved all along.″

Boston Latin is a public school, but a highly selective one. Its students have included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Cotton Mather and Ben Franklin.

Sarah’s lawyer, Michael McLaughlin, had argued that the school’s admissions system _ administered by Boston’s school board, the School Committee _ was an illegal quota masked by ``high-minded and amorphous terms″ of diversity and fairness.

Half the school’s students are selected solely on entrance exam scores and grades. Admissions for the remaining half are weighted by race. For example, if 15 percent of the remaining applicants are black, 15 percent of those admitted must be black.

The appeals court cited recent Supreme Court decisions that show the high court is ``highly skeptical of racial preferences.″

``While we appreciate the difficulty of the School Committee’s task, and admire the values that it seeks to nourish, noble ends cannot justify the deployment of constitutionally impermissible means,″ the court said.

One member of the three-judge panel dissented.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro ruled that the School Committee had a ``compelling interest″ in promoting diversity, considering the troubled racial history of the city’s schools. Violence broke out in 1974 when a federal judge ordered school integration.

Sarah now attends Latin Academy, another of Boston’s three selective ``exam schools.″

The appeals court heard the case early so Sarah could attend Boston Latin this year if she won.

Three years ago, McLaughlin sued Boston Latin when his own daughter was denied admission to seventh grade even though she ranked higher than more than 100 minority students who were granted admission.

He claimed that the city’s former policy of setting aside 35 percent of the seats for minorities was unconstitutional. Last year, the case was dismissed and his daughter admitted after the city agreed to change its policy.

Sarah challenged the new policy and McLaughlin represented her.

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