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U.S. Judge Releases Wilmington Districts From Court Oversight

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A federal judge has ruled that Wilmington, Del., and its suburbs have remedied past school segregation and has released them from federal court supervision.

U.S. District Judge Sue L. Robinson said in a ruling last month that the metropolitan Wilmington districts had done all they could to carry out the court's desegregation orders, even though the area's black students continue to fare much worse than their white peers in terms of academic achievement, discipline rates, and class placement.

The judge said the districts had done better than most urban school systems around the nation in trying to close the gaps between black and white students. The plaintiffs, she said, failed to show that the remaining gaps were due to discriminatory educational practices rather than societal factors outside the schools' control.

"The doors of the public school system have been opened to all children, regardless of their color," Judge Robinson said in calling for court supervision to end after 17 years. "All children, regardless of their color, are presented with the opportunity to learn and succeed, building upon their education."

A three-week trial to determine whether the districts had achieved "unitary" status--meaning they had remedied the vestiges of past segregation--ended in January. Both sides presented exhaustive testimony from experts. (See Education Week, March 1, 1995.)

Ruling Hailed

Officials of the state and the four school districts, each of which encompasses a chunk of Wilmington and its northern New Castle County suburbs, hailed the ruling.

"We are supposed to celebrate when constitutional violations have been remedied and authority over the schools can be restored to the people on the local scene entrusted with educational policy," said Charles J. Cooper, a lawyer who represented the state House desegregation committee in the case.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs, an organization of parents and activists called the Coalition to Save Our Children, have appealed Judge Robinson's ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. They also have asked that the four districts--Brandywine, Christina, Colonial, and Red Clay Consolidated--be legally restrained from taking any actions that would have violated the court order.

"The court came up with an extraordinarily narrow view of what is necessary to desegregate schools, and left a number of issues really unanswered," said Thomas J. Henderson, a lawyer who helped represent the plaintiffs as deputy director of the Washington-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Mr. Henderson said his side will argue on appeal that Judge Robinson excluded or ignored much of the plaintiffs' expert testimony in reaching her decision. The ruling focused largely on the fact the districts had successfully distributed balanced numbers of black and white students among their schools.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs also claim that the districts will become more segregated and continue to discriminate against black children unless supervised by the court.

Little Immediate Impact

Even if the appeals court leaves Judge Robinson's decision intact, it is unclear what effect her ruling will have on the four districts, which enroll about 55,000 students overall. Their borders, and many of their policies, were created directly in response to the court's desegregation orders.

Both sides seemed particularly concerned with the ruling's potential impact on the "9-3" student-assignment plan the court ordered in 1978, when its supervision of the district began.

Under the plan, children have been bused from the city to the suburbs for nine of their 12 years of schooling, and from the suburbs to the city for three years.

Many parents in the districts have said they would like to see the busing of their children end.

But Ralph G. Ackerman, the president of the Brandywine school board, said last month the court order had not hurt, and may have helped, his district's efforts to provide a quality education.

"It has provided children an opportunity to be together who probably would not have been otherwise. It has fostered a great deal of tolerance and understanding," Mr. Ackerman said.

The Red Clay school board last month released 173 high school freshmen from having to attend school in the city for the next three years. The plaintiffs' lawyers have challenged the action in their appeal.

Judge Robinson's decision came too late in the summer for the four districts to make major changes in their assignment of students for the coming year. Some also lack the facilities to let students return to schools in their neighborhoods.

Paul R. Fine, the president of the state school board, welcomed the court's decision and said it will not slow the state's efforts to help minority children.

"Now we need to begin the real hard work of improving the quality of education in our state," he said. "That is what we are focusing on."

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