Judge Orders Mississippi District to Desegregate, Consolidate Schools

Published July 1, 2016

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi has ordered Mississippi’s Cleveland School District to desegregate its schools and combine the district’s middle school and high school.

More than 99 percent of students enrolled at D.M. Smith Middle School and East Side High School are black. Nearby Cleveland High School’s student body is 47 percent white and 45 percent black, and Margaret Green Junior High is 53 percent black and 41 percent white. Prior to the ruling, the district utilized an open-enrollment policy, so students could have attended either East Side High School or Cleveland High School. 

The case, Cowan v. Cleveland School District , began in 1965, when parents and guardians filed a lawsuit alleging the Cleveland School District operated “on a racially segregated basis.” In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion “to enforce the previously-entered desegregation orders governing the district and compel the district’s compliance with federal law.”

The U.S. District Court filed its opinion in May, in which Judge Debra Brown ordered the district to comply with the Justice Department decision that “the only way to achieve desegregation is by consolidating Cleveland’s high schools and middle schools.” The district must consolidate its high schools and middle schools at the beginning of the 2016–17 school year. 

“The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally guaranteed right of an integrated education,” Brown wrote in her opinion.

The Cleveland School District issued a statement saying it was “considering options for appeal.” 

Federal Interference

Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, says the federal government is responsible for the case having finally been decided.

“The courts have been involved in the Cleveland School District on and off for more than 50 years,” Thigpen said. “The Obama Justice Department decided to resurrect this case a few years ago and have been pressing the court to make a decision.”

Ignoring the Facts

Thigpen says most people in the district believe the schools are complying with the law.

“The Justice Department looks only at the numbers, and despite the fact that students can attend whichever high school they want, and despite the fact that Cleveland High School is racially balanced, they see that East Side is almost 100 percent black and they consider that unacceptable,” Thigpen said. “They also ignore the fact that East Side is rated higher academically than Cleveland High School, which shows there is no bias in the quality of instruction toward the school with more white students.”

Leslie Hiner, vice president of programs for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, says the Cleveland School District has racially balanced open-enrollment policies.

“In the Cleveland School District, there are magnet schools, open enrollment, open enrollment for courses where students receive transportation between schools for courses of their choice,” Hiner said. “The racial composition for that choice is about 50-50, and it is well-supported by families in that district.”

Jamie Ferguson Jacks, an attorney for the Cleveland School District, says the district was satisfied with the status quo.

“Our district believes the open-enrollment, magnet-school plan is a constitutional plan,” Jacks said.

Honoring Parents’ Wishes 

Hiner says the District Court should have paid closer attention to the school district families’ wishes.

“It’s vitally important that the courts pay attention to the wishes of the family,” Hiner said. “Those areas in the school district where parents have been able to exercise independent choice have been successful in integration and academics. The wishes of the parents of those children are of paramount importance. They’re making good choices in the Cleveland district, and they’re just now starting to see positive results, and now is not the time to step in the way.”

Says Community’s Already Satisfied

Jacks says the attitude of the district school board reflects the community’s response to the court’s decision.

“The board believes that many in the community support the district and the open-enrollment plan,” Jacks said. “This is evident from the participation of the community, both black and white parents, in our school system. We are very proud of that in Cleveland. There is no other school district in our area that enjoys the kind of diversity in the classrooms as we do in Cleveland.”

Thigpen says parents were satisfied with the system in place before the District Court made its ruling.

“Most people—both black and white—have been happy with the current setup, where students can decide which school to attend, and they don’t like the prospect of having to change that when there is no apparent academic advantage to doing so,” Thigpen said.

Hiner says parents of both races express their opinions by deciding where to send their children to school.

“It seems to me that if parents believed their children were going to get a better education, that would be a mitigating factor,” Hiner said. “Even the court did see that black and white school officials and parents and communities were working together, and their desire was an overwhelming desire to ensure excellent education for all children in the district.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.