Lawsuit Urges Tucson To Comply With Civil-Rights Order

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A group of black, Hispanic, and Native American parents is urging a federal district judge to order the Tucson, Ariz., school district to comply with an anti-discrimination plan that federal education officials approved nearly 15 years ago and then allegedly failed to enforce.

In papers filed with the court in September, the parents argue that judicial intervention is warranted because the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights has failed to ensure the district's compliance with the plan since it was adopted.

In recent years, minority groups have been unsuccessful in attempts to persuade federal judges to prod the OCR to enforce civil-rights laws more vigorously.

The Tucson parents' suit differs in that it does not aim to force the OCR to take action against the district, said their lawyer, William E. Morris of Southern Arizona Legal Aid, in an interview last month. Rather, it seeks to persuade the court to order school officials to live up to the agreement that they made with the federal agency.

Elizabeth B. Harmon, a lawyer for the Tucson district, contested the charges leveled against the school system, saying that "the district has long since complied with the agreements" made with the OCR and "emphatically denies" continued violations.

The suit not only "alleges a lot of discrimination throughout the district," Ms. Harmon added, but has "raised issues 15 years old."

"It's going to be difficult" to litigate those issues now, she said. "It seems ludicrous to put everybody through it."

Richard D. Komer, the OCR's deputy assistant secretary for policy, declined to respond directly to the charges of dereliction of duty leveled against the OCR He cited unfamiliarity with the dispute and the OCR's prior involvement in it.

However, he said, it is possible that the OCR may have "dropped the ball" regarding the anti-discrimination agreement "somewhere along the line."

Mr. Komer noted that his office has been hamstrung by budget constraints in recent years, a period in which the number of complaints filed with the agency has "about doubled."

"[This] may have been a case where, in the best of all possible worlds," the office should have conducted an investigation to determine whether the 1975 agreement was being carried out, he said.

The case stems from an investigation of possible violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the Tucson schools that was initiated by federal education officials more than 20 years ago.

Title VI bars discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in federally funded programs. Individuals who feel they are the victims of bias can file suit under the law. It also authorizes federal agencies to investigate complaints and to initiate their own inquiries, order remedies if discrimination is discovered, and ultimately to cut off a recipient's federal aid.

According to the Tucson parents' suit, after an investigation conducted during 1973 and 1974, the OCR found that the district had violated the law and related regulations by, among other things, "denying minority children equal access to the full range of curriculum provided Anglo students."

The federal agency approved a remedial plan offered by the district in late 1975 or early 1976. Under the plan, the parents say, the district agreed to provide bilingual instruction to non-English-speakers and hire a "sufficient" number of bilingual-education teachers; furnish minority students with "complete ... equal and non-discriminatory instructional materials"; improve school libraries; provide health screening; abolish tracking systems; and guarantee all students "equal access to the full range of the [district's] curriculum."

According to the parents, in the intervening years the Tucson district has "both perpetuated and failed to eradicate the discriminatory conditions."

In addition, the parents claim, since 1976 the OCR "has substantially if not completely failed" to monitor the plan "in direct and material violation of its statutory duties."

Although the agreement itself included no termination date, lawyers for both sides in the dispute say the OCR may have sent an "exit letter" to district officials in 1979 stating that the federal agency would end close supervision of the district. However, no such letter has been located in district or OCR files, they said.

In any event, Mr. Morris said, the district's obligation to abide by the remedial plan would not have ended with the issuing of an exit letter.

When the OCR sends such a message, "it is not saying, 'We're releasing you from substantive obliga8tions,"' he said. "Obligations are permanent."

The parents have asked the judge to order the district to carry out ''all obligations imposed ... by the 1975 OCR agreements."

Mr. Morris suggested that a court-ordered tax increase might be necessary to secure the necessary funding.

The exact amount needed is unclear, but "we're talking millions, I'm sure," he said.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a federal judge could not unilaterally order a tax increase to help finance desegregation programs. But, it added, a judge could order local officials to assess such a tax.

The district court in the Tucson case had not set a trial date as of last week.

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