Federal Judge Orders Desegregation of Secondary Schools in Miss. District

By Mark Walsh — May 17, 2016 4 min read
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A federal district judge has ordered a Mississippi school district to consolidate its two high schools and its two middle schools as the only acceptable alternative to achieve desegregation under a more than 50-year-old lawsuit.

Judge Debra M. Brown of U.S. District Court in Greenville, Miss., on May 13 ordered the 3,700-student Cleveland, Miss., district to adopt the plan advanced by the U.S. Department of Justice over two alternatives favored by the district.

The judge noted that the lawsuit had been filed in 1965, more than 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which struck down separate but equal schools. And the first remedy in the suit came in 1969, the same year the high court held, in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, that addressing segregation with “all deliberate speed” was no longer good enough.

“In the decades since this pronouncement, the district has failed to meet this obligation as it concerns the high schools and middle schools in Cleveland, Mississippi,” Brown said in her 96-page opinion in Cowan v. Bolivar County Board of Education.

“This failure, whether born of good faith, bad faith, or some combination of the two, has placed Cleveland in the unenviable position of operating under a desegregation order long after schools in bastions of segregation like Boston, Jackson [Miss.], and Mobile [Ala.] have been declared unitary,” she wrote. “More important, and of far greater harm, the delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally guaranteed right of an integrated education.”

‘Freedom of Choice’ Plan

Education Week profiled the Cleveland district in 2014 as part of a look at the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 helped prod the desegregation lawsuit against the school system. At that time, a federal appeals court had just rejected a “freedom-of-choice plan” ordered for the district’s secondary schools by a different federal district judge.

That ruling led to new rounds of testimony and briefs, resulting in the May 13 decision by Brown. The district’s enrollment, as of May 2015, was 66.7 percent African-American, 28.8 percent white, and 4.5 percent other races, court papers say.

The challenge for the district’s two high schools is that one—Eastside High—long served a primarily black attendance zone and remains virtually entirely African-American despite efforts to attract white students.

The enrollment at the other high school—Cleveland High—has been roughly half white and half black in recent years. The story is largely the same at the district’s two middle schools, with one serving a nearly all-black enrollment and the other closer to half black, half white.

The school district sought to continue some form of a “freedom-of-choice,” or open enrollment, plan. Its preferred plan would have bolstered an International Baccalaureate program and created an early college program at Eastside High.

The district’s expert, Christine Rossell of Boston University, testified that the Cleveland district is more racially balanced than many Southern districts were at the time they were declared unitary, or legally desegregated, by federal courts.

The Justice Department called for a plan that would assign all the district’s high school students to a consolidated high school using Cleveland High and one of the middle school facilities. Such a school would open with a racial makeup that was 62.9 percent black, 32.4 percent white, and 4.7 percent other.

Justice Department Plan

Meanwhile, under the Justice Department plan, all 6th- through 8th-graders would attend a consolidated middle school at the current Eastside High campus. That school would open with a racial makeup that was 70.5 percent black, 26.2 percent white, and 3.3 percent other.

Rossell, the district’s expert, testified that the U.S. plan would cause not only more white flight from the Cleveland district, but also “bright flight"—the loss of ""black intellectuals ... Hispanic intellectuals ... Asian intellectuals, and hardworking motivated middle class parents.”

Brown held that the U.S. plan was the only constitutional option and that “potential white enrollment loss is a problem that must be met with creativity.”

“To this end, the U.S. plan calls for a rebranding effort, a diverse offering of academic programs, and the formation of a multi-racial advisory panel to ease the transition—all methods this court finds reasonable and appropriate,” the judge said.

“The U.S. plan ... is not without challenges,” Brown said. “It pushes the limits of the district’s facilities and, most concerning, is opposed by some community members and key decision makers in the district. However, the U.S. plan is the only one most likely to achieve the desired effect of desegregation. Thus, consolidation represents the only constitutional avenue presented and available to this court.”

The judge ordered the parties to offer a timeline by early June for implementing the consolidation plan.

Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement that “this victory creates new opportunities for the children of Cleveland to learn, play, and thrive together. The court’s ruling will result in the immediate and effective desegregation of the district’s middle school and high school program for the first time in the district’s more than century-long history.”

On its website, the Cleveland district says its school board “is examining the 96-page opinion of the court and considering its options for appeal. The court did not provide a timeline for implementation of any changes. If the board appeals, it would request that the existing open-enrollment plan continue while the appeal is pending.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.