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Steps To End 'Racially Identifiable' Schools Ordered

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Officials in DeKalb County, Ga., must take further steps--such as implementing a mandatory-busing plan--to end the segregation of their schools, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In a decision delivered on Oct. 11, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ordered the district to consider "pairing and clustering of schools, drastic gerrymandering of school zones, and grade reorganization" to integrate its schools.

The ruling is the latest in a series of conflicting decisions by federal appeals courts, which are deeply divided on the issue of how and when school districts may be judged to have completed their obligation to dismantle racially dual school systems.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule definitively on these issues, and may be asked to do so in this case and in one involving the Oklahoma City public schools. (See related story, this page.)

The court's ruling in the DeKalb case returned the suit against the district--at about 80,000 students, the state's largest--to the supervision of U.S. District Judge William C. O'Kelley.

In a 1988 ruling, Judge O'Kelley acknowledged that the district had taken several steps designed to integrate its schools, but he did not declare it "unitary," or legally desegregated. Both the plaintiffs and the district appealed that decision.

Last week, the county school board voted unanimously to appeal this month's ruling to the full 11th Circuit Court and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Whether the appeals process will slow the district's desegregation efforts "remains to be seen," said Marcia W. Borowski, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.

But Ms. Borowski expressed hope for cooperation.

"I think the board and the plaintiffs can work together," she said. "There are lots of ways to desegregate school systems. ... I think we have the capacity to do this right."

'Racially Identifiable Schools'

The panel's 30-page decision, which affirms parts of Judge O'Kelley's 1988 ruling but reverses others, holds that the DeKalb district "has not achieved unitary status."

"After 20 years of court supervision," the opinion continues, "the [district] continues to operate racially identifiable schools."

The case began in 1969, when a group of black parents won a court order forcing the district to close six all-black high schools.

Six years later, the district began implementing several measures designed to decrease segregation in its schools.

Among other steps, the district provided transportation to students who transferred to a school in which they were a minority. It also opened several magnet schools, and created a biracial committee to review desegregation efforts.

And, in a move criticized by some teacher's groups, the district has complied with a court order requiring it to reassign scores of veteran teachers to predominantly black schools. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1988, and Aug. 2, 1989.)

Six Factors Considered

According to the circuit-court panel, the district's efforts failed to create a unitary system as described by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1968 ruling in Green v. County School Board.

In that case, the court listed six factors for districts to consider when assessing whether vestiges of segregation had been eliminated from their schools: the assignment of students, faculty, and staff members; transportation systems; extracurricular activities; and facilities use.

In holding that a school district must eliminate the vestiges of discrimination in all facets of its operations before it can be declared unitary, the 11th Circuit placed itself at odds with a 1987 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston's school-desegregation case.

The First Circuit held in that opinion that Boston had achieved unitary status in student assignments even though it had not fulfilled court orders affecting other areas of its operations.

In his 1988 opinion, Judge O'Kelley ruled that the DeKalb County schools had achieved integration in all areas but faculty and staff assignment. As a result, he ordered teachers reassigned.

The circuit-court panel added student assignment to the list of unfulfilled obligations. Half the district's black students attend schools with black populations of more than 90 percent, the opinion notes, while 27 percent of its white students attend schools with white populations of more than 90 percent.

The panel's decision criticizes the school district's "inaction."

"For many years," the ruling states, the school system "planned, contributed to, and directly caused racial segregation in its schools.''

In rebuffing the district's argument that demographic changes, rather than racial discrimination, have led to racially imbalanced schools, the 11th Circuit noted that school segregation may contribute to the racial segregation of neighborhoods.

"By operating a dual system," the court said, the DeKalb school system "affected the 'hearts and minds' of its students and may have contributed to the housing patterns that today 'cause' school segregation."

To remedy the situation, the panel opinion makes several proposals. Among other plans, the district must contemplate redrawing district lines and "busing--regardless of whether the plaintiffs support such a proposal."

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