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Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of Coalition for Educating Black Children

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On May 7, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a published opinion in Everett et al. v. Pitt County Board of Education affirming the efforts of African American parents and community members to stop Pitt County Schools in North Carolina from implementing its 2011-2012 student reassignment plan. The UNC Center for Civil Rights represented the Pitt Coalition for Educating Black Children and several parents of children attending Pitt County Schools.

“This is a great victory for the people,” said Mark Dorosin, managing attorney at the center. “The court affirmed what decades of desegregation law, from Brown vs. Board of Education to the present, require: that a school district that remains under a desegregation order has an affirmative duty to eliminate the vestiges of racial discrimination, and until the court rules that the district has fulfilled that duty, current racial disparities are presumed to be the result of the past unconstitutional conduct.”

In the 1960s, a federal district court found that Pitt County was operating a racially segregated school system in violation of students’ constitutional rights. The court approved desegregation plans designed to “eliminate the racial identity” of the schools and administratively closed the case. In 2008, the case was reactivated when a group of white parents filed a complaint with the Department of Justice claiming that the school system’s use of race in its 2006-2007 student assignment policy discriminated against their children. The UNC Center for Civil Rights then intervened on behalf of the coalition and African American parents. In 2009, the parties reached a settlement agreement approving the race-conscious assignment policy. At that time, the district court found that the district still had not remedied the vestiges of race discrimination and ordered the parties to work together toward “eliminating the vestiges of past discrimination to the extent practicable.” The parties were also ordered to report back to the court in December 2012.

This appeal challenged the school system’s 2011-2012 assignment plan, which focused on school proximity, building capacity, academic proficiency and an impact area of 14 out of 36 schools. Despite the coalition’s push for the plan, which would yield the best diversity and academic proficiency, Pitt County Schools selected the plan that increased or ignored racial isolation in several schools and opened a brand new school, Lakeforest Elementary, as a high-minority, low performing school. In April 2011, the plaintiffs filed a motion to stop the reassignment, arguing it would violate the active desegregation order and in fact resegregate students. In August 2011, the district court refused to hold the district to its affirmative duty to complete the integration of its schools and denied the motion. Plaintiffs appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

The Court of Appeals held that the district court “committed legal error by failing to apply, and requiring the school board to rebut, a presumption that any racial disparities in the 2011-2012 assignment plan resulted from the board’s prior unconstitutional conduct in operating a racially segregated school district before 1970.” The court affirmed that school board retained its affirmative duty to “take whatever steps might be necessary to convert to a unitary system,” and emphasized that “in the decades following the issuance of Teel and Edwards [the original desegregation orders in the case], the school board has yet to discharge this obligation and demonstrate to the district court its attainment of unitary status.” The court also noted that the district court’s request for the parties to submit “a report” is “not at all a clear indication that the district court will fully and finally resolve the issue of unitary status in December 2012.”

The Court of Appeals vacated the district court’s August 2011 decision, and remanded the case back to the district court for “reconsideration and, if appropriate, further development of the record,” with instruction that the burden is on the school board to establish that the 2011-2012 assignment plan moves the district toward unitary status. 

“We will continue to stand up for our children,” said Melissa Grimes, a named plaintiff and elected officer of the coalition. “It is so good to have the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals stand up for them with us today.”

Contact: Mark Dorosin, UNC Center for Civil Rights: 919.225.3809/919.843.7896

-May 7, 2012

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