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Justice Dept. Seeks To Oust Ala. Principal

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Washington

U.S. Justice Department lawyers went to court last week seeking the removal of the Wedowee, Ala., principal who allegedly sought to ban mixed-race couples from a prom and called a biracial student "a mistake.''

Justice Department officials and other legal experts said they believed it was the first time the government has sought to remove an individual school administrator for alleged discriminatory conduct.

In a motion filed with the U.S. District Court in Montgomery, Ala., the Justice Department asked the court to require the Randolph County school board to explain why the principal, Hulond Humphries, "should not be terminated or reassigned to duties that do not involve contact with or supervision of students.''

Although his threat to cancel the Randolph High School prom was rescinded, the motion said, "the school board has expressly declined to take disciplinary action'' against Mr. Humphries.

The controversy began on Feb. 24 when Mr. Humphries told a student assembly that the senior prom would be canceled if any interracial couples planned to attend. When Revonda Bowen, a 16-year-old student who has a white father and a black mother, asked Mr. Humphries what the warning meant for her, the principal allegedly told her that her parents had made a "mistake'' and that he did not want to see others make the same mistake.

Ms. Bowen and her parents have filed a separate lawsuit seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the school district and Mr. Humphries.

Dozens of black students have boycotted the public school system since the school board voted 4 to 2 in March against considering dismissal of the principal and are attending alternative schools set up in black churches in the county.

The Rev. Emmett R. Johnson of the Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Wedowee said that at least 80 students are still boycotting the public schools and that the "freedom schools'' would remain open at least through this week, when the academic term ends.

The prom reportedly was held as scheduled on April 23 without incident. Protesting black students held an alternative prom.

Desegregation Orders

The Justice Department filed its motion under a long-running desegregation case that covers all Alabama school districts, arguing that Mr. Humphries's alleged statements represent a violation of existing desegregation orders.

It asks the court to order counseling for students who were at the assembly, and written assurance that there will be no retaliation against boycotting students.

The department also argues that the district is violating desegregation orders in its disciplinary and personnel practices.

"The district has disproportionately hired and retained white teachers, administrators, and support staffs, and has failed to recruit, hire, or consider for hire eligible black applicants for such positions,'' the motion states.

It cites a 1989 probe by the Education Department's office for civil rights, which found that Mr. Humphries had disciplined black students more harshly than whites, and said black parents and students have recently told the O.C.R. that "racially discriminatory disciplinary practices have recurred.''

Noting that the motion was filed on the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval L. Patrick said in a news release that the case "demonstrates that some of the problems that once haunted us are still with us.''

"This case is not just about one man who made a derogatory remark, but an entire school system that we believe has allowed an atmosphere of discrimination to persist,'' Mr. Patrick said.

'Bold' or 'Grandstanding'?

National and local civil-rights leaders hailed the action as symbolic of the Clinton Administration's commitment to ending racial discrimination.

"I think it is a bold step,'' said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "I just don't understand a board of education that would keep a man like that.''

Charlotte Clark-Frieson, the president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter and the school board's only black member, said, "The wheels of justice are turning again in Randolph County.''

But Bruce Fein, a Justice Department official in the Reagan Administration and now a conservative legal scholar and commentator, criticized the department's motion.

"It seems to me more political grandstanding than assistance on a constitutional standard of desegregation,'' he said. "I think it is likely the court will turn it down.''

Danny McCord, the president of the school board, declined to comment about the specifics of the Justice Department's action.

"We've been trying very hard to reconcile all the problems and get the children back in school,'' he said. "Some children are back.''

Mr. Humphries did not return a telephone call. He has not issued any statements in recent weeks, a receptionist at Randolph High said.

Defenders of the principal have said he was merely trying to reduce racial confrontations at the school.

The federal action may reduce some tension. Ms. Clark-Frieson of the local N.A.A.C.P. said she is recommending that black students return to the public schools.

"We must now demonstrate some faith in the justice system,'' she said.

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