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Miss. District Drops Race-Conscious Class Elections

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A Mississippi school district has agreed to end its longtime policies of having black and white co-principals at one of its high schools and holding race-conscious class elections.

The DeSoto County district signed an agreement late last month with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights that effectively acknowledges that the practices violated federal civil rights law.

Since 1970, when the district began its efforts to desegregate, Hernando (Miss.) High School has followed a policy of having co-principals, one black and one white. The school also required co-class officers and alternated some student council elections each year based on race. For example, the school required election of a black student body president and white vice president one year, reversing the order the next year.

School officials have said the policies helped smooth the process of desegregation and ensured participation in school activities by black and white students.

But the policies drew a challenge last spring from a junior at Hernando High, Alison Williams, who said she was shocked by the racial requirements for class officers. Ms. Williams was unable to run for senior class vice president for this school year because she is white and the post was designated for a black student. She instead successfully ran for president of the student council. ("Dual-Race Policy at Miss. School Target of Student, Parent Protests," June 4, 1997.)

Voluntary Agreement

On Oct. 31, the OCR said it was ending its investigation because the 16,000-student district, located near the Tennessee border, signed a voluntary agreement ending the race-conscious policies.

The district agreed to drop all race-conscious student elections this year at two high schools, as well as race-based elections for "class favorites" at a middle school.

The district will eliminate the practice of having white and black co-principals by next Sept. 1. It agreed to promote "multiracial awareness" and "winning spirit/behaviors" among all students and staff members and to submit progress reports to the federal agency.

Kelly Jacobs, the mother of two children in DeSoto County schools and the leader of a parents' group that opposed the district policies, welcomed the agreement but said she was disturbed that district officials did not seem willing to publicly acknowledge that the challenged practices were wrong.

Charles Alexander, the assistant superintendent of the district, said officials had agreed to a "voluntary resolution'' even before the OCR investigation began.

"We don't expect any problems,'' he said.

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