Justice Dept. To Back Local Opponents of Busing
Washington--Amid strong signals that the Reagan Administration is hardening its opposition to busing for school desegregation, the naacp Legal Defense and Education Fund has asked a federal judge for permission to intervene in the U.S. Justice Department's desegregation suit against the Charleston County, S.C., public schools.
Charging that the Justice Department, which filed the suit in January 1981, will not adequately represent the black plaintiffs in the case, the civil-rights group filed its request late last month.
See related stories on page 4.
"We are seeking to intervene because the Justice Department cannot be relied upon to protect the interests of minority stu-dents," said Theodore M. Shaw, assistant counsel for the legal-defense fund.
The action in the Charleston case came shortly before the department's civil-rights division issued a statement last week that said the Administration would "support modification in court" of existing desegregation decrees.
"The Justice Department is opposed to relying on mandatory busing as a remedial technique to desegregate public schools," said the statement from William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights. "Where a school board seeks to modify a busing plan that is not working, and requests our support, we will, of course, give that request serious consideration," the statement said.
"We have spoken with some parties dissatisfied with outstanding busing decrees, and possible Justice Department participa-tion in an effort at modification is being considered with respect to several school districts," it continued.
Federal Court Order
More than 700 of the nation's approximately 16,000 school districts are under federal court order to desegregate, according to statistics gathered by the Education Department's office for civil rights. About 1,100 other districts have negotiated desegregation agreements with the federal government or have voluntarily desegregated.
At most, 3.6 percent of the children attending public schools are involuntarily bused for desegregation, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The statement by Mr. Reynolds does not represent a new policy, according to John V. Wilson, a Justice Department spokesman. The department has already supported efforts in federal court by the school board in East Baton Rouge, La., to end court-ordered busing in that school system.
President Reagan, during a press conference last Tuesday, also labeled the statement "no change in policy."
"There has been so much court-ordering, and some of it has seemed to be a violation of the rights of a community and the rights of local school boards and so forth, that it's time, if communities are ready, to take this action," Mr. Reagan said.
The President also contended that "in a number of cases right now, the people that were supposed to benefit from the busing are the ones who are bringing the cases. The black community is the one that is protesting," he said.
That statement was disputed by civil-rights activists, who characterized the Administration's latest moves against court-ordered busing as an "invitation" to anyone who opposes a desegregation order to ask the federal government's assistance in ending busing.
"The Justice Department has taken a wholly irresponsible position; it's politically motivated," charged Michael Sussman, an attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of labor, religious, and civil-rights groups, said the department is "openly inviting racial conflict by announcing that it will aid local authorities in seeking to weaken court-ordered desegregation."
In the opinion of Mr. Shaw, the statement by the federal civil-rights official is yet another "signal" that the federal government is likely to propose desegregation remedies that will fall short of the mandates of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown decision--the Court's original school-desegregation decree--and in its 1971 Swann deci-sion, in which the Court first sanctioned the busing of students.
The statement by Mr. Reynolds was released in response to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in which an unnamed official of the department's civil-rights division disclosed that the Administration would support efforts by the attorney general of Missouri and by Representative Richard A. Gephardt, Democrat of that state, to ask a federal court to end busing of students in St. Louis.
The article said the department was also considering whether to enter into continuing battles over desegregation in Boston and Denver, with the goal of seeking to dismantle existing busing plans in those cities.
The department has developed two criteria for deciding when to attempt to dismantle existing busing orders, the official told the St. Louis newspaper.
They are: "a request from a local school district asking for relief from a busing order that has not worked"; or "support from the minority community for ending mandatory busing."
Although the school board had requested Justice Department support in the East Baton Rouge case, spokesmen for the boards of education of Boston, Denver, and St. Louis maintained that no official request for assistance was made by any of those cities to the Justice Department.
In Boston, a group of parents of black students had on Sept. 8 asked a federal court judge to end mandatory busing, instituting instead a ''freedom of choice" plan. But the group has not contacted the Reagan Administration for its assistance, according to the attorney for the parents, Larry Johnson.
Negotiations in Charleston
The Charleston case stems from an investigation conducted by the federal government during the Carter Administration, in which the Justice Department charged that 40 percent of the district's black students were concentrated in schools in which 95 percent of the students were members of minority groups.
Under the Reagan Administration, federal attorneys have been negotiating for nearly a year with representatives of the Charleston school board. Justice Department sources said that the parties are "not close to agreement" on how to remedy the school system's alleged violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Alice Paylor, an attorney for the law firm that represents the Charleston school board, said the school district and the federal government are trying to "negotiate a compromise, and are trying to agree on something that falls short of busing." Lawyers for the school board came here last week to discuss with Justice Department officials the possible implications of the intervention effort, according to Ms. Paylor.
The motion filed by the legal-defense fund argued that the types of remedies deemed acceptable by the Reagan Administration--which has emphasized magnet schools as the most effective desegregative strategy--will not end segregation in the school district.
Arthur C. McFarland, a Charleston attorney who is working with the legal-defense fund, said the group was prompted to intervene in the suit by community residents who feared that the remedies proposed would be inadequate. The group chose to intervene in the existing suit rather than bring a new suit, he said, because "we have no differences with the issues they raise" in the Justice Department suit.
Rather, he said, they are concerned about the "expanse and the type of remedies."