In desegregation case, judge blasts school officials and Justice Department

The U.S. Court House and Post Office in Huntsville, Alabama. (Photo by Spyder_Monkey via Wikimedia Commons.)

By Nikole Hannah-Jones, ProPublica

A federal judge in Alabama has taken the rare step of ruling against a local school board in a desegregation case, rejecting the board's claims that it had done all it could to end segregation in its schools.

In a lengthy, at times scathing ruling issued last month, U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala said she could not "conclusively" determine that the Huntsville City School District wasn't still operating an unconstitutionally segregated system or that it had made a "good faith effort" to significantly integrate its schools. As a result, Haikala refused to approve a student assignment plan that had been proposed by the Huntsville school board.

The Huntsville ruling is important, both because the district is racially diverse and because it is the largest in the state still under federal mandate to desegregate.

In May, ProPublica published a story showing the state of inaction and confusion surrounding scores of federal school desegregation orders, the once-powerful tool for compelling school districts across the country to provide equal educational opportunities to students of color. Many of the orders had been allowed to sit dormant for decades, often with no one monitoring school officials to make sure they were complying with federal mandates to integrate. And in many other instances, judges had routinely lifted existing orders even when those districts remained highly segregated.

For some parents and civil rights lawyers, the inaction and allegedly one-sided decisions amounted to an abdication of responsibility by the country's federal bench.

In Alabama, however, two federal judges, Judges Myron Thompson and William Harold Albritton III, had bucked the trend, refusing to see the decades-old orders as relics that should simply be brought to a close. And now, it looks like those two judges may have company.

"Until the board achieves the goal" of eliminating "segregation to the extent practicable," Haikala wrote. "The Court must continue to supervise the Board's efforts."

In April, ProPublica chronicled the fortunes of the school district in Tuscaloosa, Ala. There, the city's schools, after years of successful integration, had effectively been re-segregated after the district had won its freedom from a longstanding court order. ProPublica's reporting showed that the re-segregation that had happened in Tuscaloosa was happening in school districts throughout the nation.

Huntsville's schools had been under court order since 1965. Though the district itself is racially balanced, most of the district's schools are either heavily white or heavily black. A new zoning plan proposed by the board in 2013 would have increased segregation for many black students.

The U.S. Department of Justice, a party to the case, objected to the assignment plan and in February the dispute landed before Haikala, who'd been appointed to the bench by President Obama in 2012.

In the judge's 107-page ruling, she blasted school officials for failing to provide required reports on the district's integration progress for two decades. She also criticized the Justice Department for failing to be "proactive" and to "keep an eye on" the marked disparities in schools serving mostly white children and those serving mostly black ones.

Huntsville officials, in response to an interview request, released a statement to ProPublica, stating, that as a result of the order, the district intended to work with the U.S. Department of Justice "to create a roadmap" to satisfy the judge's demands and ultimately gain "the return of control of Huntsville City Schools to local officials."

Justice Department officials did not respond to an interview request before publication.

Huntsville officials, as is common in these cases, argued that their schools had been fully desegregated for years. Any enduring segregation or other inequities, they argued, had to do with housing patterns and other forces outside of their control.

These arguments, ProPublica's reporting shows, have often proved successful before federal judges.

But Haikala wasn't persuaded.

"The record in this case is not as clear as the Board suggests, and the fact that the district integrated the student bodies of many of its schools in the early 1970s does not automatically lead to the conclusion that the district does not currently operate a dual system," she wrote. She pointed out that not only were many schools still segregated, but the opportunity to take advanced classes also appeared linked to race.

She noted testimony from a white mother who withdrew her child from a predominantly black high school because it offered fewer advanced academic courses than other schools.

"While private choices seem to have precipitated the existing racial polarization of the district's schools, it is not clear ... that the district has not contributed to the situation," she wrote. "There is a significant disparity between the educational programs in the district's predominately African-American secondary schools and the educational programs in the district's predominately white schools."

That disparity, she said, could even be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Huntsville schools had taken several steps to improve educational outcomes for black students, including adopting universal school breakfast programs and increasing pre-kindergarten classrooms. But the judge's ruling seemed skeptical of whether the district would continue these efforts once court oversight ended.

"The Board submits that the district's conduct over the past 50 years demonstrates good faith. Recent events, though, have hurt the board's record," she wrote. She catalogued Huntsville's 20-year failure to file required reports, its track record of missing data and incomplete information, and its public criticism of a requirement in the order that the district allow students to transfer into schools where they are a racial minority.

Haikala set two magistrate judges to the task of gathering information and to work with the district and the Justice Department to come up with a plan to address any other issues needed to get the district in compliance with the order, and ultimately, to end it.

Huntsville's children, she wrote, "have no control over where they live now, but giving them a strong education is the surest way to ensure that they will have choices about where they will live in the future and what they will do when they become adults."

You can read Judge Haikala's entire order here. You can search ProPublica's database to see whether your district is, or has ever been, under a school desegregation order and check school segregation in your hometown.