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Cavazos Acts on Long-Dormant Civil-Rights Cases

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Washington--Sometimes the wheels of justice turn slowly indeed.

Just ask William C. McCollum, superintendent of schools in River Rouge, Mich., a small town that borders the city of Detroit.

He got an unpleasant surprise from Washington in late May: a ruling from the Secretary of Education in a civil-rights case that he thought was dead and buried.

"The last I heard, I thought we were in compliance with whatever laws. I thought the case was over," Mr. McCollum said last week.

The case wasn't dead; it was just sleeping. But it's easy to see why Mr. McCollum thought differently.

The Office for Civil Rights, then housed in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, began investigating River Rouge in 1969. Its officials were summoned to a hearing in 1976, and an administrative law judge issued an opinion in 1977, finding the district guilty of racial discrimination in faculty and student assignments.

In 1978, the Civil Rights Reviewing Authority upheld the ruling on personnel practices but overruled the judge's decision on student segregation, arguing that housing patterns and a large railroad yard bisecting the district made integration impractical. Shirley M. Hufstedler, the first Secretary of Education, agreed to consider the case in 1981.

The district heard nothing until 1985--two secretaries later--when some lawyers were dispatched to Michigan to discuss an agreement. The o.c.r. was not satisfied that the district was in compliance.

"I took them around, and they presumably filed a report, and I never did hear from them again," said Kenneth J. Logan, a lawyer who represented the district.

And there the case languished until the current Secretary, Lauro F. Cavazos, finally remanded it for further review on May 22.

That same day, a similar message was issued from the Secretary's office to a school district in Maywood, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, catching another superintendent by surprise.

"I'm in the middle of restructuring the whole district here. I've got four weeks before school starts and things are going pretty well, and this is just what I need to have happen," said Ben Nowakowski, who took over the job in June.

"I didn't know anything about it," he said.

The Maywood case is of similar vintage to that of River Rouge. An administrative law judge found student segregation in 1982, and in 1985 the reviewing authority remanded the case, arguing that the judge should have looked beyond statistical evidence. The o.c.r. immediately asked for secretarial review, which was granted--on March 6, 1989.

Bob Ellch, a lawyer who represents the district, said the lawyer handling the case for o.c.r. went on leave after filing for review, started a family, and returned to find the file back on her desk.

Lawyers for the school districts and o.c.r. sources agreed that the cases were not landmark ones. And both districts potentially faced the loss of federal funding if they lost their cases.

So how could they possibly have lain dormant in the Secretary's office for so long?

"Changes in relevant case law by the U.S. Supreme Court and the changing of secretaries and other officials at the Department of h.e.w. and then the Department of Education have been the primary reasons why these cases were not resolved earlier," says a statement provided by the Office of General Counsel.

A department spokesman said officials would not comment further.

The statement does not explain why other cases were not similarly held up. Before the May orders, River Rouge and Maywood were not only the oldest cases pending before the Secretary; they were the only ones.

"I think it's just layers of bureaucracy," said Mr. Ellch. "Things get lost in the shuffle."

"You'll notice that cases like this weren't often initiated by the Reagan Administration and they tried hard to settle," noted an o.c.r. official familiar with the cases. "I think they didn't want to do anything with a case that could ultimately require a funding cutoff."

"Depending on how you look at it," the source said, "discrimination went unremedied for 20 years or clouds hung needlessly over two school districts for that amount of time."

"It's nothing more than deliberate avoidance," said another e.d. official familiar with the cases. "Every time we got a new secretary, people like me would bring it to their attention and nobody wanted to bother."

"There was no reason for the school districts to push the cases, and with no pressure from the outside, pressure from inside can be ignored," the official said. "Frankly, it's an embarrassment to the department."

However, the source added, Mr. Cavazos deserves some credit for finally taking action.

In addition to ruling on disputed legal issues, both secretarial decisions suggest that o.c.r. again seek settlements, and that judges consider whether the original charges are still relevant.

And, while they may or may not satisfy the law, some changes have indeed taken place in both districts.

Mr. Nowakowski said Maywood still has several predominantly black schools and two predominantly white ones. But minority enrollment in those two schools has risen from about 20 percent in 1980 to about 40 percent, while remaining at about 80 percent for the district as a whole.

In River Rouge, Mr. McCollum said, one elementary school remains almost entirely black, but minority enrollment has risen to 10 percent at the two predominantly white schools. The three-square-mile district, which provides no bus service, allows open enrollment.

As for personnel assignments based on race, Mr. McCollum said, "that has totally disappeared."

In fact, he said, the principal of one of the "white" schools is black--as is Mr. McCollum.

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