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Topeka's Schools Remain Segregated, Court Rules

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Thirty-five years after the Topeka, Kan., school district became the first in the nation to have its "separate but equal" policies declared unconstitutional, a divided federal appeals panel has ruled that the district still has not completed the task of dismantling an illegally segregated school system.

The latest decision in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, reversed an October 1986 lower-court ruling and remands the case to the lower court for "the formation of an appropriate remedy."

In a 2-to-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that Topeka school officials had not exhausted all of the available means to eliminate the racially segregated schools that existed prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown.

While acknowledging that the district had taken some steps to implement desegregation, Judge Stephanie K. Seymour, writing for the majority, said that "for the most part, the Topeka school district has exercised a form of benign neglect."

"The duty imposed by the Constitution, and articulated in numerous cases by the highest court in this land, requires more," the opinion continued.

A dissent by the third judge on the panel had not been released as of late last week.

The Topeka board of education could decide as early as June 15 whether or not it will appeal the decision, according to Joseph W. Zima, a lawyer for the district.

The June 2 ruling came two weeks after school officials had commemorated the 35th anniversary of the original Brown decision with a ceremony at Sumner Elementary school, the previously all-white school that Linda Brown's family sued to open its doors to her.

Topeka was never required to implement mandatory busing and has continued to assign students to neighborhood schools. In the 1950's and again in the 1970's the board of education took steps to desegregate its schools by redrawing boundaries, closing old schools, and building new ones.

The district currently has 15,162 students, some 30 percent of whom are minorities. Minority enrollment in individual schools currently ranges from a high of 69 percent to a low of 5 percent, district officials said.

In ruling that the district had not achieved unitary status, the appeals court noted that minority faculty members had consistently been disproportionately assigned to schools with the highest minority-student populations. "This correlation is fatal to the school district's effort to show lack of current segregation," Judge Seymour wrote.

Because the system had previously been found guilty of de jure segregation, district officials bore the burden of proving that the vestiges of discrimination had been eliminated, which they did not do, the appeals court ruled.

"The district court erred in placing the burden on plaintiffs to prove intentionally discriminatory conduct," the judges said.

In addition, the court noted that current demographic trends in the district, combined with the fact that many of its schools are already racially balanced, indicate "that the desegregation plan which must be developed may not be too burdensome, a circumstance for which all can be thankful."

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