Justice's Desegregation Plan Hits Snag

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WASHINGTON--The Justice Department's plan to seek dismissal of a number of school-desegregation lawsuits appears to be faltering in several test-case districts, where officials have reconsidered cooperating with the department's effort.

At least 6 of the 11 districts in Georgia that had previously agreed to cooperate in seeking the dismissals have reversed their position, according to officials with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., which is fighting the action.

The sudden change in attitude appears to be in response to the likelihood that the legal procedures involved could be long and costly.

The Legal Defense Fund, a party to all the suits, has requested extensive records from each of the districts involved. The requests cover records for all years since 1971, when the districts' final desegregation plans were implemented.

"It was our belief that it was in our best interest not to devote time, effort, and money to respond to that interrogatory,'' said William M. Barr, superintendent of the 4,000-student McDuffie County district.

"We have received notice from the federal district court that we have been dropped from consideration for dismissal,'' he added.

Jack L. Fokes, superintendent of the 4,400-student Macon County public schools, said last week that "we have no objection to being under the court order.''

"It would be wasteful to use our limited resources'' in a protracted legal battle, he added.

In a letter to the Justice Department, Scott Chew, the lawyer for the Macon County schools, said the district had received assurances from the department that there would be no objections to the motion for dismissal.

"As it now appears that there are objections,'' the letter continued, "the board believes that it is in the best interest of all concerned that the petition for dismissal be withdrawn, and that the board continue under the order of the court until such time as any and all objections have been satisfied.''

None of three county superintendents contacted last week reported any local protests in response to the move to dismiss the cases.

All but 2 of the 11 Georgia districts were "leaning toward declining'' to cooperate, according to a survey by The Atlanta Constitution conducted last month. One of the two, Camden County, has subsequently been dropped from the action because Justice apparently filed its dismissal papers in the wrong district court.

Another six districts the department had expected would cooperate in the effort apparently decided not to participate before dismissal requests were filed with the federal courts.

It is not clear what the ultimate effect of these actions will be on the department's broader objective of seeking an end to as many as 220 federal school-desegregation cases. (See Education Week, March 16, 1988.)

U.S. District Judge Wilbur Owens, who oversees nine of the cases, has scheduled a status conference with all of the involved parties on May 18.

That conference "will provide guidance for the parties for dealing with other districts,'' said Nathaniel Douglas, chief of the Justice Department's educational opportunities litigation section.

Complaints Filed

The Legal Defense Fund has also uncovered evidence that "some, but not all'' of the 11 districts initially designated for dismissal have been the target of discrimination complaints filed with the Education Department's office for civil rights, according to Phyllis McClure, a director with the defense fund.

That would appear to contradict earlier, repeated assertions by Justice officials that none of the involved districts had had complaints filed against them in recent years.

"The Justice Department had apparently not checked with OCR, or they could have found out what we found out,'' Ms. McClure said.

Mr. Douglas said the department had checked with "several sources'' when researching the dismissal petitions, but he declined to say whether or not the OCR was one of them.

"I've always said that the Department of Justice has had no complaints about these districts,'' he said.

Besides, he said, "merely because a complaint was filed, it may not in fact be related to the subject matter of our lawsuit.''

Only one of the discrimination complaints filed with the OCR resulted in a finding that illegal discrimination was actually occurring.

Last July, the OCR found that students in the Jasper County School District "were assigned to racially identifiable classes in a discriminatory manner'' in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in federally funded programs.

L. Hubert Paschal, superintendent of the 1,450-student Jasper County school system, said the district was only marginally out of compliance with legal guidelines, and only had to shift "one or two students in a few classes'' to satisfy the OCR's objections.

The federal court order has not been a burden to the school system, he said, and officials are taking a "wait and see'' attitude with regard to the dismissal proceedings.

"What I've read seems to indicate to me that the requirements to be released might be such that we would just want to let it lie,'' he added.

Vol. 07, Issue 32

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