Tuesday, July 30, 2013
We are now just past half-way through a two week trial over school segregation in Pitt County, North Carolina. The case was brought five years ago by a group of African American parents to stop a student reassignment plan that they asserted increased racial segregation in in the district's schools. Plaintiffs' claims hinge on the fact that the school district was never declared unitary and is still under court order to desegregate. The plantiffs are represented by the UNC Center for Civil Rights. The school district counters that it is and has been unitary and, thus, is not prohibited from implementing assignment plans that increase racial imbalance (as long as they are not intentionally discriminatory).
A few hundred districts in the country are still under some sort of court order, but few are actively litigated and even fewer produce plaintiff victories. The rarity in the case arises from plaintiffs' recent victories. In 2009, the district court declined the opportunity to declare the schools unitary, but in an interesting turn did not demand any specific rase conscious remedial action by the district. Instead, it allowed that it would be sufficient if the district implemented race neutral measures. My reading was that the court was concerned that an appellate court would reverse its finding that the schools were unitary (or that the district court would soon find the schools unitary itself), in which case the best chance of the pre-unitary status student assignment plan complying with the post-unitary status requirements of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle would be if the plan was race neutral to begin with.
The school district apparently took this as licence to do whatever it wanted and ignore the racial impact of its new student assignment plan. And when the plaintiffs' objected, the district court did nothing to stop the district, reasoning that the plaintiffs were seeking a preliminary injunction and the burden rested on plaintiffs. Plaintiffs appealed and the Fourth Circuit in Everett v. Pitt County Bd. of Educ., 678 F.3d 281 (4th Cir. 2012), gave them a rare school desegregation win, holding that, until a school district is declared unitary, the burden rests on the school district to demonstrate that it is carrying out its affirmative duty to desegregate and that racial imbalances are not a vestige of segregation. This, of course, has been the law for decades, but it is not often that we see courts hold schools to this standard.
For more on the case, see here.