Dual-Race Policy at Miss. School Target of Student, Parent Protests
Hernando High School in DeSoto County, Miss., is a place frozen in time.
But forces within the community are now prodding the school to give up the desegregation-era policies that still govern it.
What began with a student's challenge to the school's student-council voting procedures has gained momentum. Several parents have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education, charging that the process separates students by race and fosters a racist mentality. A larger parents' group has begun to pressure the school to change. And the national spotlight illuminating the school has won the student who started it all the support of strangers.
The controversy started when a 17-year-old junior blew the whistle on election rules that assign some class offices to either white or black students.
But the school has clung to other traditions as well--including an unusual administrative structure of white and black co-principals that is a holdover from the early days of integration.
The students also participate in rituals that aren't uncommon in the South, including nominating white and black candidates for class clowns, class favorites, and Mr. and Miss Hernando High School.
School officials defend these race-conscious practices as necessary to be fair to minority students. To some parents, however, they seem discriminatory. At the least, they argue, they are out of step in a growing county school system with 16,000 students on the outskirts of Memphis, Tenn.
"I just know in my gut this is wrong," Alison Williams said in an interview last week, a day after she appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" program to speak out against the school's voting rules. "I've been getting e-mail from all over the nation from people saying, 'Go Alison. This is wrong. Fight it.'"
Alison, 17, the daughter of a retired military officer who has moved frequently, was recently elected executive president of the student council. She and her mother, Beverly, have questioned the school's voting procedures to no avail.
Each class at Hernando High is required to have a white and a black co-president. The positions of class vice president and secretary-treasurer alternate between black and white students each year. Class representatives and executive officers of the council, however, aren't subject to race specifications.
"The only way to be fair is to take race off these petitions" for office, Beverly Williams said. "Kids should be able to run for what they want to run for, regardless of what color they are."
'Folks Have Been Happy'
Theron E. Long, the white principal of Hernando High, vigorously defends the policy, which was instituted in 1970 when DeSoto County desegregated its schools. At the time, white students were in the minority at Hernando High; today, because of emigration from Memphis, 75 percent of the school's 725 students are white and 25 percent are black.
"We were looking for things to maintain the participation and the support from both communities--majority and minority populations--and it worked," Mr. Long said of the voting procedures. "Folks have been happy."
Far from being racist, the principal said, the policy assures minority participation at a time when people still vote in blocs. "It would be great some day to get away from that," he said,"but until I'm assured we are, I don't see anything wrong with making sure there's minority participation."
Harold L. Kinchelow, the school's black principal, disagrees.
"Actually, we should have gotten rid of it a long time ago," he said. "We hadn't thought of it until this young lady reminded us of it. It just worked so well, we never thought to change."
The Williamses and their supporters, including a 60-family group pressing for change called Parents for Better Schools, point out that the county's other three high schools have open student-council elections.
They argue that Hernando students can and do freely vote for black candidates, noting that one class elected three black representatives. Students also voted for a black prom queen this year.
"It's a separate-but-equal kind of thing," said Kelly Jacobs, the mother of two children in DeSoto County schools and a spokeswoman for the group. "Hernando High takes every opportunity to point out skin-color differences, which to me is racism."
The practices also leave little room for students who are neither white nor black, critics say. One year, an Asian-American student was given her choice about whether to run on the majority or the minority ballot, school officials said. She ran as a minority candidate and won.
The Williamses became concerned about the voting rules last year, when Alison wanted to run for co-president of her class but turned in her petition for office too late. They were shocked by the race requirements on the document.
At the time, Ms. Williams said, she protested to Principal Kinchelow and two district administrators, but got no satisfaction. Her complaints this year, she said, including an appearance before the school board, also were unsuccessful.
This year, Alison said, she would have liked to run for vice president of her senior class, but that spot was reserved for a black student. Instead, she ran for executive president of the student council and won.
A black friend, Alison said, wanted to run for secretary-treasurer but couldn't because the spot is designated for a white student this year.
Principal Long denies that any student has been discouraged from running for office on the basis of race. Because racially designated seats rotate every other year, he said, students have more than one chance at those spots during their four-year tenure at the high school.
"The board of education is in support of what we're doing," Mr. Long said. "If they were not, we would have had to stop it a long time ago."
After getting no satisfaction locally, both Ms. Jacobs and Ms. Williams wrote to federal officials to ask for an investigation. The Education Department's office for civil rights has received the complaints, a spokesman said last week.
The president of the school board did not return calls for comment.
Unless a student's rights are violated, said Jim Hemphill, a spokesman for the Mississippi education department, such issues are best left to local communities.
In pockets around the South, there are still vestiges of segregation in the schools. Separate proms and dual homecoming queens are not unheard of. At Hernando High, each class selects a black and a white student for the homecoming court, which is presided over by a black and a white queen.
What appears to be unique at Hernando High is its administrative setup, which also dates from 1970. That year, Mississippi school districts that hadn't already done so were ordered by the federal courts to draw up desegregation plans.
The DeSoto school board closed black high schools and merged them with white schools. The county's four high schools were assigned a principal of each race.
Elsewhere in the South, many black principals lost their jobs or were demoted when schools desegregated.
Over the years, the dual principalships in DeSoto County dissolved at all but Hernando High, said Mr. Long, who has been principal for 29 years. Mr. Kinchelow, the school's third black principal, has been in his job for 24 years and plans to retire next year--which he said is likely to end the arrangement.
The principals said they do not divide their duties by race in any manner. They also emphasized that their school enjoys good race relations--a fact they feel has been lost in the negative publicity.
"Our kids get along together and work together and play together," Mr. Long said. "We've probably been freer of racial problems than any school in the country."
On that point, Alison Williams doesn't disagree. That's why the student-council policy puzzles her.
"Deep down, they think this is creating harmony, but there already is harmony," she said. "There are no prejudice problems at my high school."
What seems like fairness to natives of Hernando, a town of 3,000, looks like segregation to Wendell Paris, the state director of the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Perpetuating a system of segregation has always been the law of the land in Mississippi," he said, calling for increased federal scrutiny. "The local politicos, as well as state government, are not going to touch it, as long as it meets minimal requirements."