JACKSON – A federal judge Wednesday sounded as if he leans toward lifting court scrutiny of the Simpson County School District, 34 years after it was first accused of wide-ranging racial discrimination.

“It appears that there has been little, if any evidence presented … that reflect issues of racial bias in the hiring decisions or the ways things are set up,” said Senior U.S. District Judge William H. Barbour Jr. at the conclusion of 1½ days of a “fairness hearing” on the district’s request to govern its own affairs.

Employee recruitment and hiring practices are the final hurdle for Simpson County Schools to be released from the federal desegregation order.

Attorneys were given about two months to pore over hearing transcripts, write additional briefs and attempt to influence Barbour’s eventual ruling.

Jackson attorney John Hooks represents the district, while opposing counsel are Suzanne G. Keys of Jackson and Torey Cummings and Mitzi Paige with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Mississippi school districts first went under federal desegregation orders in 1970. Since then, many districts have resolved racial discrimination claims and won release from the court orders.

But more than a dozen districts remain under Justice Department scrutiny, including Simpson County, which was first accused of racially discriminatory practices in June 1982 by adults on behalf of three minors, Cynthia Fletcher, Gloria Jean Barnes and David Barnes.

Through various witnesses, Hooks contended that the Simpson County School District conducted its employment practices as instructed by the court and would continue to do so if the sanctions were lifted.

Keys and Cummings’ three witnesses told complicated stories of job losses or failures to be hired, questioning whether the district is following the court’s instructions.

Barbour, who asked questions throughout the hearing, offered impassioned remarks about the possible conclusion of the case both sides have sparred over for decades.

“Is it time to rule and let these aggrieved applicants for employment positions at the school, because of their race, go to more familiar courts and use actions that address those that have arisen years after this was filed?” he asked.

He expressed concerns at the “huge” costs being incurred by the public school district through its years of court appearances and regular, extensive reporting to the Justice Department.

“Help me,” Barbour said to the attorneys. “If you can bring other issues to my attention that you think need to be addressed in order to help sew this thing up or give a pretty good reason why it should not be, that is a help.”

Barbour gave attorneys 30 days to file additional comments, then another 10 days to respond to each other’s opinions, putting the earliest possible ruling from him in July.

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