A little more than a year after expressing concerns about discipline of black students and their access to advanced courses compared to white peers in the Franklin County School District, the federal government has indicated it will dismiss the district from a longstanding desegregation order.
The U.S. Department of Justice in June said it would not oppose the Franklin County School District’s motion for unitary status, essentially saying it would no longer fight the district and would dismiss the nearly 50-year-old case, according to a docket entry describing the events of a June 5 court hearing.
The federal government’s about-face in Franklin County could be a sign of things to come for other schools in similar situations across the state.
Mississippi still has a large number of school districts — 42 of 144 total, according to the U.S. Department of Justice — under desegregation orders. These orders were filed in the the 1960s and 1970s following the South’s reluctance to adhere to the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
The move came after the federal government just last year expressed concerns following a February 2016 site visit to the district about a disproportionate referral of black students for discipline and punishment of black students. Federal officials also cited concerns about “equitable participation and performance of black students in ‘gifted and talented’ and advanced courses,” compared to their white peers, according to court documents.
Lawyers for the school district responded to the concerns in part by saying many of these concerns were not part of the scope of the original order.
John Hooks, an attorney on the case, said that historically the federal government has expanded the scope of the desegregation orders far beyond their original purpose.
“They’re beginning to try to engraft school districts to look at racial disparities in discipline, educational outcomes, special education services, and that was never the original intention” of the desegregation orders, he explained.
So far, however, seven African-American Franklin County parents, residents, and current and former employees have filed objections to the district’s motion, saying there are still problems with discrimination in hiring and treatment of black staff and students.
Talina K. Matthews, a teacher, said that she is the only teacher in the district who has a video camera in her classroom and has been harassed by fellow teachers.
“The harassment details fellow employees soliciting signatures and parent letters to submit to principal and school board. The purpose of these letters were to extract me from the district,” her statement read.
Carla Bell, a parent of children in the district and a former employee in the schools, described applying for three separate administrative positions in the school district. Each time, a white person, sometimes who had less or no administrative experience, got the job, she said.
“The Franklin County School District has unfair hiring practices when it comes to hiring qualified African Americans in Administrative positions,” Bell’s letter to the court stated. “African Americans are always overlooked and Caucasians with less experience are always hired or promoted over us.”
Five other objections were filed.
Calls to Superintendent Chris Kent were not returned, but an employee who answered the phone at the district office said Kent would be “making a statement at a later date.”
“We carefully review, and will continue to carefully review, school districts’ compliance with their desegregation orders and as well as case law that affects this compliance,” Justice Department spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam said in response to questions about what prompted the Department’s change regarding the desegregation order.
The district filed its motion for declaration of “unitary status,” or release from federal oversight, in December of 2015. In the motion, it argued the district has functioned “on a unified basis” since combining the formerly all-white Franklin School and the formerly all-black Lillie Mae Bryant School in 1970. It said everything from transportation to staff to extracurricular activities are integrated.
“Further, since all schools serve all children, any construction has benefited children of all races equally,” the motion continued.
Today, the district is made up of 1,370 students with a racial makeup of 44 percent African-American, 54 percent white, and 2 percent other races.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed its original complaint against the district in 1969, asserting the district was operating the two separate schools “as a means of perpetuating racially segregated schools,” the document states.
“By these acts and practices defendants have denied and are denying students in Franklin Co. School District the full and equal protection of the laws in violation of the U.S. Constitution,” it continued.
Attorneys in Mississippi say they are hopeful the new administration’s hands-off approach will mean less regulation of schools in Mississippi.
Education law attorney and Hooks’ law partner Jim Keith, who represents school districts, community colleges and universities across Mississippi, described a current Department of Justice that has pledged to be “more cooperative” with schools.
Keith said after a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with then-U.S. Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler about issues in Mississippi, he is confident the new administration means good things for school districts that have been fighting what can be an expensive and laborious battle. Costs of litigation and the time and resources involved in producing reports and data to the U.S. Department of Justice are onerous, he said, especially at a time when school districts are strapped for funding.
The trip to D.C. was the result of a chance encounter with Wheeler, a former school board attorney in Indiana, who spoke to members of a group at an event Keith and Hooks attended.
Keith said he and Hooks approached Wheeler at the event.
“The question (we asked him) is ‘How do we come out from under these desegregation orders?’ We don’t have black bus routes and white bus routes, black schools and white schools. Public education is the most diverse entity in our state,” Keith said, describing the conversation with Wheeler to superintendents and education officials in a session at the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents conference earlier this summer.
“So we’ve done what we need to do. In this economic time, it is very important for school districts to not have the impediment of having to get permission to consolidate schools,” for example, Keith said.
“We made that comment to Mr. Wheeler and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you come up there and see me?'”
Keith said that weeks after their meeting with Wheeler, who was then heading the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Justice, the agency told the court it would not oppose a motion filed by Franklin County School District in 2015 for declaration of unitary status, or for the desegregation order to be dismissed and the district be declared “unitary.”
The Department of Justice declined to answer questions about any changes in regulations it will enforce and whether it is moving in the direction Keith indicated in the wake of Wheeler’s announcement last week that he is leaving his post.
Hooks said he feels confident Franklin County will be declared unitary, and expects to see more school districts file similar motions.
Both sides will appear before federal Magistrate Judge Linda R. Anderson in a fairness hearing on Monday.
Mississippi school districts currently under desegregation orders:
Benton County School District
Aberdeen Municipal Separate School District
Webster County School District
Kosciusko Public School District
Louisville Municipal Separate School District
Montgomery County School District
Attala County School District
North Tippah Consolidated School District
Greenwood Public School District
Tunica County School District
Choctaw County School District
Nettleton School District
Oktibbeha County School District
Cleveland School District
South Tippah Consolidated School District
Leake County School District
Canton Municipal Separate School District
Rankin County School District
Meridian Municipal Separate School District
Neshoba County School District
Lincoln County School District
North Pike Consolidated School District
Laurel School District
Scott County School District
Forrest County School District
Clinton Public School District
Lauderdale County School District
Brookhaven Municipal Separate School District
Marion County School District
Yazoo County School District
Poplarville School District
Columbia School District
Lawrence County School District
South Pike School District
Kemper County School District
Yazoo City School District
Walthall County School District
Covington County School District
Franklin County School District
Copiah County School District
Jones County School District