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Rights Group Protests New Promotion Policy With Sit-In

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Five local members of a national civil-rights group last week entered the third week of a sit-in at the Tuscaloosa, Ala., board of education building, holding to a demand that a promotion policy they say was implemented unfairly be delayed.

But the board, strengthened by two favorable court rulings, stood by the standards that this fall resulted in 1,071 of 10,480 students being held back one grade. Eighty-seven percent of the students who were denied promotion are black.

Thomas Ingram, the district's superintendent of schools, refused to have the six members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (sclc) arrested because he said it would only give the group the national attention it seeks.

The state president of sclc, John Nettles, however, vowed to lead the group's supporters in acts of civil disobedience if school officials do not change their stance. And the national sclc president, Joseph Lowery, has been in town twice to show support for the protesters, who have been locked up since Oct. 5.

Business at the school-board building is going on without interruption, an observer said. "There's a little commotion, but the people there are doing what they always do," the observer said.

Since the protest began, rallies have been held on Sunday nights at churches around town and on weekdays at the school-board building. The number of people at the rallies has ranged from 400 to 700, police said.

Supporters of the protest started a boycott of most of the city's business establishments on Oct. 15. Mr. Nettles said only "four or five'' businesses are exempt and that consumers are being urged to do most of their shopping in nearby Northport.

"In a month's time, this city is going to be crippled," Mr. Nettles said. "There is going to be a black Christmas with the cash registers very silent."

The protesters have lost two class-action suits filed on their behalf in U.S. District Court. Their attorney, John England, said he will appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit if the impasse is not settled soon.

School-board officials and the protesters have not talked about possible compromises. The protesters say that they will talk only with the full school board.

The board held a community meeting last week in an attempt to put pressure on the protesters to back down, Mr. Ingram said, but the protesters have stood their ground.

Mr. Ingram said the school board will not try to press charges against the group, and last week he allowed food and clothing to be brought into the lobby where the protesters have camped. He will not allow others to join the protesters, however.

Eight-Day Fast

The protesters fasted for eight days before school officials allowed food to be sent in to them.

"We've indicated that we respect their right to a peaceful protest, and we're not going to do anything to stop them," Mr. Ingram said. "On the first day, they indicated that they expected to be arrested right away. But we have no desire to arrest them."

Charles Steele, the president of the local sclc chapter and the leader of the protesters in the sit-in, said that "if it takes one year or two years [to change the board's decision], we're going to be here."

Since the sit-in started, the protesters have been singing, praying, reading, and talking with people gathered outside the building.

Two police officers have been assigned to patrol the area.

The dispute stems from desegregation policy enacted after a ruling in Lee v. Macon County Board in July 1981 by U.S. District Judge Frank McFadden. Judge McFadden approved all but one part of an agreement between the U.S. Justice Department and the Tuscaloosa school board.

Judge McFadden rejected the use of racial quotas in schools, but he approved school closings, new attendance zones, changes in many school capacities, voluntary student transfers, and compensatory education as means of integration.

With the start of a three-year compensatory-education program, the board also established a new curriculum that requires standard levels of achievement for all elementary- and middle-school students. That achievement is evaluated with tests, class attendance, and performance.

Previously, requirements for promotion in the district's predominantly white schools differed from those in black schools, with almost all blacks receiving "social promotions" each year, according to Mr. England.

Parents were informed of the standards in March and April of 1982. That, the protesters say, did not allow enough time to prepare the children to achieve the new goals. Mr. Ingram contended, however, that since the remedial program was in place in September, the students had enough time to prepare for promotion.

Mr. England argued before U.S. District Judge Sam C. Pointer that implementation of the new standards was unconstitutional because of infringement of property and equal-protection rights.

Under the precedent set in Debra P. v. Turlington, a 1980 case originating in Florida, Mr. England argued, a student must have adequate notice of promotion standards before he can be denied promotion. Mr. England also said that many failing students did not receive equal protection because of past inequities in the schools.

Judge Pointer agreed that the parents should have been given more notice of the new policy, but he said the property right established in Turlington applied only to candidates for graduation--not to students seeking promotion in all grades. In an observation not incorporated into his order, Judge Pointer urged the school board to reconsider the plaintiffs' complaints.

'Past Dual System'

"Twenty-three percent of all black kids were failing, and only 5 percent of the white kids were failing," Mr. England said. "That disparity resulted from the past dual system.

"It's not that the standards are not welcome. My contention is that the black parents did not have adequate notice. In the past, the black schools have not used reading levels as a means of promotion. Before you fail a kid, give him an opportunity to learn."

The five people locked in the building are Mr. Steele; the Rev. D.L. Gordon, the local sclc vice president; the Rev. R.B. Cottonreader, a national sclc board member; and Odessa Warrick and Lydia Washington, both local sclc members. A sixth member of the group left the sit-in last Thursday with health problems.

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