Tampa Desegregation Case Returns to Court

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A case that raises pivotal questions about how far a formerly segregated school district must go to counter the effects of demographic change is back on the front burner in Tampa, Fla.

In the latest chapter in a 38-year-old court fight, the Hillsborough County school district is seeking release from court oversight on grounds that it has eradicated the effects of its prior discrimination against blacks. With some 150,000 students, the district is the nation's 12th largest.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and lawyers representing local black students oppose granting the district so-called unitary status in federal court.

"Now is not the time to abandon court supervision," said Warren Hope Dawson, a Tampa lawyer who represents the plaintiffs. "This school district is fast returning to a segregated system even with court involvement. I can only imagine how quickly it might fully resegregate without court intervention."

In court papers filed before a hearing scheduled for this week, the district concedes that some schools have become heavily African-American in recent years. But it hopes to convince U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Jenkins that the situation was created by demographic shifts beyond its control.

How Much Is Enough?

In order to be declared unitary, a school district is required to show that it has eliminated the vestiges of its prior discrimination in student and faculty assignments, resource allocation, transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities.

It must also demonstrate that it has shown good faith and that it offers prior victims of segregation a high-quality education.

The question of whether a district can be declared unitary even though some of its schools have fallen out of racial balance because of changing housing patterns was central to the U.S. Supreme Court's high-profile 1992 ruling in a case involving DeKalb County, Ga.

In that decision, a divided court found that the district could not be held responsible for racial imbalances caused by a heavy migration of black residents into the suburban Atlanta district after its desegregation plan was adopted.

Case Seen as Key

But an August decision from the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in a case involving Muscogee County, Ga., raised new questions about how that 1992 ruling should be interpreted, said David Armor, a desegregation expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

In overturning a ruling that had declared the Muscogee County district unitary, the appeals court said the district, which includes the city of Columbus, had not even tried to maintain racial balance after 1980. Demographic changes, the court said, were no excuse for that inaction.

Mr. Armor, who is serving as an expert witness for the Hillsborough district, said the Tampa litigation has the potential to clarify ambiguities resulting from that ruling.

"This is a very critical case in view of the decision by the 11th Circuit in Muscogee County," he said.

The Hillsborough County district argues that it has made many efforts to maintain racial balance, ranging from magnet programs to busing 14,000 students for integration every day.

But the plaintiffs say it has not been enough. They point to 17 schools that have black enrollments exceeding 40 percent in a system that is only about 24 percent African-American overall. One school, they report, is 90 percent black.

"If defendants believe that there is no relationship between the racial imbalance and the school board's actions past or present," the plaintiffs assert in court papers,"then the burden is on the defendants to prove it."

Vol. 16, Issue 08

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