Blacks Divided as Court Prepares To Consider Desegregation Case

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DEKALB COUNTY, GA.--Daniel Buggs, a student-relations specialist for the DeKalb County school system, leads a group of 1st graders at Fairington Elementary School through a game of "Simon Says."

Life is like the game, Mr. Buggs explains to the children, all of whom are black. It is important to follow directions and do as you are told.

Some of the students' parents would disagree, however.

Those giving the directions do not always know what is right--just consider the district's stance on desegregating its schools, those parents and many others in the suburban Atlanta district believe.

Largely because the DeKalb County school district has rejected forced busing and instead directed children to attend neighborhood schools, critics of the district argue, many of the schools in the system are racially imbalanced.

At Fairington Elementary, for instance, 98 percent of the students are black. Other schools in the county, meanwhile, are more than 90 percent white.

Black parents "have trusted this racist school system too much," said Samuel M. Williams, a black parent who has joined a class action challenging the district's student-assignment policies.

"There is no way," he said, "that black parents in DeKalb County in 1991 are in a position to bring about equality without the help of the Courts."

The question of whether the DeKalb County school district has done all it can to comply with desegregation orders to eliminate the vestiges of official segregation will be considered this week when the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in Freeman v. Pitts.

Lawyers for the district will argue that the district should be declared unitary, or free from such vestiges, and thus be removed from federal court supervision.

Lawyers for several black students will contend, meanwhile, that the district is still segregated and that it should be ordered to implement additional measures, including forced busing if necessary.

Whatever direction the High Court gives in the closely watched case, it is a sure bet that the decision will make many parents in DeKalb County unhappy.

The case "has made us adversarial when we should not be with people who are our logical and desired partners," Robert R. Freeman, the district superintendent, said, referring to those who argue that desegregation efforts should continue.

Acknowledging that the case has stirred up a "quiet turmoil" in the county, Mr. Williams said he worries, though, that a decision in favor of the district could make matters worse. "Take desegregation away from us," he said, and "we are further polarized."

Perhaps ironically, however, black parents in the county are not unanimous in their belief that desegregation efforts should continue.

Demographic Changes

DeKalb County, home to about 450,000 residents, stretches about 21 miles from north to south at its western border, which abuts Atlanta. The state's largest school system, the DeKalb County district has more than 90 schools that serve about 75,000 students.

In 1965, about 5 percent of the district's student body was black. In the past quarter-century, however, the proportion of black students has increased dramatically--largely the result of a massive influx of black families to the southern part of the county and an exodus of whites out of the county after 1975.

The district has maintained that blacks were drawn to the southern part of the county by new jobs, the "blockbusting" of formerly white neighborhoods, and the completion of Interstate 20 leading from DeKalb County into Atlanta.

But Marcia Borowski, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the case, last week argued that real-estate agents have systematically steered black families toward the southern end of the county, and that the racial imbalance of schools has perpetuated itself by prompting parents to move near same-race schools.

A Racial Imbalance

The district's current enrollment is about 62 percent black, 28 percent white, and 10 percent from other racial groups, Mr. Freeman, the district's superintendent, said last week.

Mr. Freeman acknowledged that the racial distribution of students is uneven, with mostly white schools in the north, mostly black schools in the south, and several schools in which the student enrollment is more than nine-tenths from one racial group.

Nonetheless, he said, the district should be relieved of any further obligation to desegregate its schools.

The district argues that it fulfilled its obligation to desegregate its schools in 1969 when it closed black only schools and adopted a court-ordered neighborhood-school plan. When the plan was adopted, the black student population was evenly distributed in the county.

Subsequent racial imbalances, the school system maintains, occurred as a result "of massive demographic changes" that were "completely beyond the school district's control."

Nevertheless, the district continues to "do everything we can to fulfill the obligation of an integrated school system," Mr. Freeman said last week.

The superintendent said the district recently passed a $100-million bond issue that will ensure that black and white students attend school in equitable facilities.

And, he added, 15,000 students are involved in a number of voluntary integration efforts, including magnet programs and a program that allows students to transfer to schools where they would be in the minority.

"Any school assignment that is done through forced integration doesn't have much of a lifetime," Mr. Freeman said. "By the next September, you have lost your students to private schools or outside the county."


Mr. Williams, one of the black parents challenging the district, and his wife, Jacquelyn, own their own telecommunications firm and a spacious house at the end of a long driveway.

Their 10-year-old son, Anwar, attends Fairington Elementary, where the average student-teacher ratio is 27 to 1 and many students walk outside to portable classrooms.

The school once had a high teacher-turnover rate, but that has since stabilized under its well-respected and charismatic principal, William E. Diggs, who describes his students as generally happy and achieving test scores just above the district average.

Mr. Williams asserted, however, that Fairington's offerings pale in comparison with those offered in the mostly white schools in the northern part of the county. At Vanderlyn Elementary School, for example, he said, the student-teacher ratio is lower, there are no portable classrooms or no problems with teacher turnover, and student test scores consistently place the school at or near the top of the district.

"I am not getting my money's worth for what I am paying in taxes," Mr. Williams complained.

The brief submitted to the Supreme Court on Mr. Williams's behalf argues that the district never implemented an effective desegregation plan, drew enrollment boundaries and devised policies designed to worsen the segregative effects of demographic changes, and should remain under court supervision.

Ms. Borowski, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, maintained in an interview last week that the district spends far less money on black students and, therefore, makes them bear most of the burden for voluntary desegregation. In addition, she said, the district's predominantly black schools have less experienced teachers and more crowded classrooms.

"These are people who have had 35 years to comply with Brown, and what have they done?" Ms. Borowski asked, referring to the landmark 1954 school-desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. "We have a fundamental problem in America about treating blacks and whites equally. The same value is not put on black life as white life."

Roger Mills, a lead plaintiff in the case, said the district needs to have forced busing because its integration efforts have resulted in "a few grains of salt in a pepper shaker that do not constitute desegregation in any sense of the word."

Saying 'No' to Busing

Not all black parents in DeKalb County agree with the argument that their children are being harmed by not attending school with more white students.

After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled against the school district in 1989, a group of black parents mobilized out of fear that the decision would lead to forced busing.

They were allowed to join the plaintiffs in the case at the federal district-court level, and have submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court arguing that the district, while needing to spend more on black students, should not use forced busing to adjust to demographic changes.

In an area that is home to several prestigious black colleges, including Spelman and Morehouse, "experience has convinced a lot of people in the black community that it is possible to have a quality education in a school that is racially identifiable," said Charles S. Johnson 3rd, a lawyer who represents the intervening parents.

Ms. Williams argued, however, that "separate has never been equal."

Mr. Williams said black children need to be exposed to white children early in life to prepare "to participate in a predominantly white society."

Fairness Praised

In visits to several DeKalb County schools last week, virtually every principal and teacher interviewed praised the fairness of the district's efforts to educate black students and the effectiveness of its magnet and majority-to-minority transfer programs in integrating students.

"The students have an opportunity to interact and get some socialization time in together," said Crawford Lewis, principal of Snapfinger Elementary School, a science magnet.

One of few exceptions to such positive assessments was the comment of a black teacher who, noting that his principal was nearby, said he did not feel he was at liberty to say what he thinks.

And Sam Harman, principal of Vanderlyn Elementary, maintained that predominantly black schools in the southern part of the county are better funded than his. "If anything, we are getting the short end of the stick," he said.

Among students at the schools, the reaction toward the district's voluntary integration efforts was mixed.

At Towers High School, a foreign language magnet, the vast majority of students in an advanced Russian class said their part-day program gave them little opportunity to interact with the school's other students, most of whom are black.

But Brannon Rufo, a white 7th grader in the science magnet program at predominantly black Snapfinger Elementary, said that he would invite six or seven classmates if he were to have a birthday party tomorrow and that "probably three or four of them would be black."

Vol. 11, Issue 06, Page 8

Published in Print: October 9, 1991, as Blacks Divided as Court Prepares To Consider Desegregation Case
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