Federal court orders Mississippi district to revise transfer and classroom assignment policies to prevent racial imbalance
A federal district court in Mississippi, acting on a complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), has ordered Walthall County School District (WCSD) to revise its transfer policies to eliminate racial imbalance in WCSD’s two high schools and its classroom student assignment policy to eliminate segregated classrooms in the district’s elementary schools. Since 1970, WCSD had been under a court ordered desegregation plan. In 2007, DOJ requested that WCSD provide it with information in order for DOJ to determine whether the school district was in compliance with the desegregation plan. Based on WCSD’s response, DOJ filed a motion with the district court alleging two violations of the desegregation order: (1) WCSD has approved over 300 transfers, the vast majority of which were white students, to the Salem Attendance Center (SAC), even though those students reside in the Tylertown attendance zone, resulting in SAC becoming racially identifiable as a white school while student enrollment at Tylertown has become predominantly African-American; and (2) WCSD administrators have assigned disproportionate numbers of white students to designated classrooms at Tylertown’s three elementary schools resulting in significant numbers of segregated, all African-American classrooms at each grade level. WCSD informed the court that it did not intend to file a response to DOJ’s charges. Having confirmed the existences of practices alleged by DOJ, the court ruled that WCSD was in violation.
The district court ordered WCSD to bring itself back into compliance with the 1970 order. With respect to the intra-district transfers, it directed the school district to deny transfer requests unless the student applicant meets one of four criteria: (1) the health/safety exception, where the student’s health or safety is in jeopardy and the transfer will ameliorate the security or medical risks to the student caused by the student’s condition; (2) the substantial hardship exception, involving a non-medical hardship as defined in Appendix A (which is available below); (3) the student’s parent is a full-time employee at the receiving school; or (4) the student is transferring from a school where he/she is in a racial majority to a school where he/she is in a racial minority. As to student classroom assignment, the court order WCSD to cease assigning students on the basis of race that results in racially segregating students. It further order that the school district assign students randomly using a “student management software program.” The court allowed for reassignment of a student assigned in this manner based on six exceptions: (1) extreme hardship or emergency; (2) students in gifted programs or students with individual education plans may be concentrated in particular classroom to ease scheduling burdens; (3) students assigned to a classroom where a parent or relative is the teacher may be reassigned; (4) reassignment where conflicts between students threaten classroom harmony; (5) students transferring into the district may be assigned to classrooms where an incumbent student has not reenrolled or has transferred out of the district; and (6) if after random assignment is completed, the number of students assigned to a classroom is not approximately equal WCSD may redistribute students to equalize classroom numbers.
The court further imposed reporting requirements, mandating that WCSD provide detailed information regarding intra-district transfers and student classroom assignments to DOJ for each academic year.
U.S. v. Walthall County Sch. Dist.
[Editor’s Note: Reporting on the WCSD case, the Washington Post reported that DOJ is still monitoring more than 200 mostly Southern school districts for compliance with desegregation orders dating to the 1960s and '70s. The article noted DOJ officials’ discovery that local school boards have adopted policies that undermine those orders, a situation that some experts say reflects a misguided sense that civil rights concerns are somehow a thing of the past. In addition, the Post reported that Walthall County got particular scrutiny because of its desegregation order and because the board adopted policies that had the effect of sharpening the racial identity of their schools. The article is available at the first link below. While DOJ monitors existing court-ordered desegregation plans, the New York Times reported in March that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) plans to focus on greater enforcement of federal civil rights laws in education. ED says it will be sending letters in coming weeks to thousands of school districts and colleges, outlining their responsibilities on issues of fairness and equal opportunity. As part of that effort, the department intends to open investigations known as compliance reviews in about 32 school districts nationwide, seeking to verify that students of both sexes and all races are getting equal access to college preparatory curriculums and to advanced placement courses. A summary of the Times article is available at the second link below.
Source: Washington Post, 4/20/10, By Stephanie McCrummen
NSBA School Law pages on ED enforcement of civil rights