By Warren Richey
A federal judge on Tuesday ordered a Mississippi school district to halt local policies that had allowed some of the district’s schools and classes to become racially segregated.
US District Judge Tom Lee gave the Walthall County School District 30 days to amend its student transfer policy and ordered an immediate halt to the alleged “clustering” of white students into certain classes in Tylertown, Miss., elementary schools.
“The district shall cease using race in the assignment of students to classrooms in a manner that results in the racial segregation of students,” Judge Lee said in his eight-page order.
“The district shall randomly assign students to classrooms at the Tylertown Elementary Schools through the use of a student management software program,” the judge said.
Desegregation order dates back 40 years
The action stems from a federal desegregation order issued in August 1970 – nearly 40 years ago. The case was closed for lack of activity in 2001.
In 2007, lawyers with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division contacted the Mississippi school district to monitor its compliance with the 1970 desegregation order. The action revealed two alleged violations.
The district was allowing more than 300 students – most of them white – to transfer from their assigned schools to a predominately white school, the Salem Attendance Center, outside their residential zone, according to court documents.
The second alleged violation involved grouping white students into a few designated classes at three other schools in Tylertown. The action created a significant number of all-black classrooms at each elementary grade level, documents say.
“It is unacceptable for school districts to act in a way that encourages or tolerates the resegregation of public schools,” said Thomas Perez, who heads the Civil Rights Division.
'Vestiges of separate black and white schools'
“We will take action so that school districts subject to federal desegregation orders comply with their obligation to eliminate vestiges of separate black and white schools,” Mr. Perez said in a written statement.
After identifying the alleged violations, government lawyers asked that the case be reopened. The Walthall County School District was joined by 12 other Mississippi districts that intervened as defendants in the lawsuit.
Last week, a lawyer for the Walthall County School District announced that the district “does not intend to file a response” to the government’s complaint.
In his order, Judge Lee said that in the future only students facing “extreme hardship or emergency” would qualify for transfer outside the random class assignment system.
Among examples of hardships that might qualify, the judge listed: incarceration of a parent, terminal illness or death of a parent, natural disaster, or domestic abuse or neglect affecting the student.
The judge also noted that “if students with a history of inappropriate interaction [with members of a different race] are assigned to the same classroom, the district may reassign the minimum students necessary to ensure reasonable classroom harmony.”
Judge Lee ordered the district to take all necessary steps prior to the beginning of the 2010-2011 academic year to “accommodate the shifting enrollment patterns in the district expected to result” from the judicial ruling.
The judge instructed the school district to assign sufficient faculty members and administrators to each district “to ensure the effective delivery of educational services to all students at the school for which they are residentially zoned.”
He also instructed the school district to “ensure that the physical condition of each school facility is adequate to satisfactorily accommodate the anticipated enrollment for respective school.”