Equity & Diversity

U.S. Warns Schools on Racially Separate Activities

By Caroline Hendrie — October 12, 2004 4 min read
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Any school staging separate social events for students of different races and ethnicities should be prepared to hire a lawyer, two federal agencies are warning in a letter sent to school districts and state education agencies across the country.

Practices such as holding segregated high school proms or naming separate race-based sets of recipients for senior-year honors “are inconsistent with federal law and should not be tolerated,” says the joint letter from the civil rights offices of the federal departments of Justice and Education.

Read the letter on seperate proms from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

“We have found, for example, that some school districts have racially separate homecoming queens and kings, most popular student, most friendly, as well as other superlatives,” says the letter. “We have also found that school districts have assisted in facilitating racially separate proms.”

The agencies “will act promptly to remedy such violations where they occur, through litigation if necessary,” warns the letter, which was signed by Kenneth L. Marcus, who heads the Department of Education’s office for civil rights, and R. Alexander Acosta, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice’s civil rights division.

In some communities in the Deep South, separate proms, homecoming courts, and other social activities became engrained as schools were desegregated in the decades following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared racially segregated public schools unconstitutional. Some towns have clung to those traditions to this day, often through the efforts of parents and students acting on their own outside of school.

Mr. Marcus said last week that federal officials would act any time they caught wind of public schools that receive federal funds being directly or indirectly involved in such practices, and the letter was designed “to get the message out.” The letter to school districts, dated Sept. 20, was preceded by an earlier version that was mailed to state education agencies, he said.

“We wanted to make clear that the federal government was speaking with one voice and would enforce all of the laws that both departments have jurisdiction over,” Mr. Marcus said.

‘Their Own Thing’

The Toombs County school district in rural Georgia attracted national attention this past spring when its high school students organized their first Hispanic prom, expanding on a local tradition of throwing separate proms for white and black students. (“Alternative Proms Gain in Popularity,” May 19, 2004. )

After consulting with its lawyer, the 2,800-student district concluded that it was powerless to interfere in parties organized outside the school system, Super intendent Kendall Brantley said last week.

Administrators at the district’s 750-student high school have always been willing to sponsor a prom, but students have declined the offer, Mr. Brantley said. He speculated that the teenagers wanted to avoid school rules on refraining from alcohol consumption and wearing clothes that meet the school’s dress code.

Saying that black, Hispanic, and white students attended each of last spring’s proms, he added that he didn’t think the decision to forgo a single school-sponsored prom was motivated by racial animus.

“It’s never been a thing about race; it’s just that they didn’t necessarily want to abide by school rules by having it on the school premises,” he said. “They liked the idea of just doing their own thing.”

A spokesman for the Justice Department said the agency would only look into situations in which state or local school officials were in some way involved in arranging or endorsing segregated social events.

The same goes for OCR, Mr. Marcus said. The office is charged with enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination by recipients of funds from the Education Department.

The office’s most recent case touching on the issues outlined in the new letter arose as part of a wide-ranging probe of alleged racial discrimination in the Worth County school district in southwestern Georgia, department officials said.

An agreement the office reached with the 4,100-student district in 1997 stipulates that the county’s high school will no longer name separate white and black homecoming queens, an approach it adopted “with the well-placed intention to avoid controversy,” as the pact put it. The district also promised to devise a way to select “senior superlatives” that “will not involve race as a consideration.”

Many schools in the South have tried to close the racial divide in social events and extracurricular activities over the years. Still, Stephen J. Caldas, a professor of education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who specializes in school desegregation, said he has often heard of segregated proms in the Cajun and Creole communities surrounding his southern Louisiana city.

“They have an official prom that tends to be all-black and an unofficial prom that is all-white,” Mr. Caldas said, adding that the community’s apparent acceptance of that pattern has surprised him.

“I don’t hear people complaining about this,” he said. “It seems to be the generally accepted social order.”

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