Equity & Diversity

High Court Lets Desegregation, Bullying Decisions Stand

By Mark Walsh — October 10, 2001 3 min read

A 43-year-old desegregation case involving the Hillsborough County, Fla., school system came to an end last week, as the U.S. Supreme Court declined to disturb a federal appeals court ruling that the district was no longer segregated.

The Oct. 1 action by the justices was one of several they took in education cases on the first day of their new term. The high court also rejected appeals involving the observance of Earth Day in public schools and the duty of school officials to protect a student from ongoing classroom bullying.

In Hillsborough County, which includes the city of Tampa, black families challenged segregated schools in 1958. A federal district judge ordered the first comprehensive desegregation plan for the district in 1971.

In 1998, a federal judge in Tampa rejected a federal magistrate’s recommendation that the Hillsborough district be declared unitary, or legally desegregated. The judge was not convinced that shifting demographics and residential patterns were the reason that 16 district schools still had ratios of African-American students that far exceeded the districtwide proportion.

But March 16, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, reversed the district judge and ordered that the school system be released from its desegregation orders.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court in Manning v. School Board of Hillsborough County (Case No. 00-1871). The New York City-based civil rights group argued that the 11th Circuit court’s ruling improperly shifted the burden of proving that unitary status has been achieved from districts to desegregation plaintiffs.

The justices declined without comment to review the case. The high court has not taken on any desegregation cases since the early and middle 1990’s, when it issued several rulings instructing lower courts essentially to hasten the release of school districts from supervision.

In other action, the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of a mother in New York state who had objected to an observance of Earth Day in her daughters’ schools.

A federal district judge in 1999 ordered the 3,700-student Bedford Central district to halt several practices, including the Earth Day celebration, because worship of the Earth was a recognized religion known as Gaia. But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, reversed the judge in a March ruling.

The appeals court said most of the mother’s challenges were moot because her children no longer attended the schools in question. But the appeals court also held that the Earth Day observance at a district high school did not amount to an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

The high court declined without comment to hear the appeal in DiBari v. Bedford Central School District (No. 00- 1932).

Bully Protection

In the school bullying case, the court declined without comment to hear the appeal of a North Carolina father who alleged that school officials were indifferent to repeated physical attacks on his son by classmates.

Elmer W. Stevenson alleged that his son, Alex, was subjected to numerous beatings by classmates in fall 1998 while he was a 6th grader at Williamston Middle School in the 4,600-student Martin County, N.C., district.

Both a federal district court and the 4th Circuit court rejected Mr. Stevenson’s civil rights lawsuit. The appeals court ruled that there was no special relationship between the school district and the boy that required the district to protect him from harm by classmates.

The father’s appeal to the Supreme Court was Stevenson v. Martin County Boardof Education (No. 00-1821).

In another case, the justices declined to review an appeals court ruling that reinstated a former assistant principal’s lawsuit against an Arizona district under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The 14,000-student Glendale Union High School District near Phoenix had sought to reassign Claudette Lutz from one school to another because of personal difficulties she was having with her principal. Ms. Lutz objected publicly to the change, saying it would worsen her diabetes. The district fired her, and she sued under the ADA.

A federal district judge dismissed the case, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, reinstated her ADA claim. The appeals court said the court had erred in ruling that Ms. Lutz wasn’t a qualified individual with a disability.

The district’s appeal was Glendale Union High School District v. Lutz (No. 01-98).

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