Feds probe Mississippi schools’ racial imbalance
U.S. Justice Department wants a small Mississippi school district to end its practice of allowing hundreds of white students to transfer from majority black schools, calling it a violation of a desegregation order...
SHELIA BYRD, Associated Press Writer
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department wants a small Mississippi school district to end its practice of allowing hundreds of white students to transfer out of majority black schools, calling it a violation of a desegregation order and federal law.
Walthall County School District Superintendent Danny McCallum said the district will comply with the request to enter into a consent decree with the federal agency before the start of the 2010-2011 school year.
The district’s schools in Tylertown are about 75 percent black with 730 students. The Salem Attendance Center is 65 percent white with about 650 students in grades K-12. The two schools are about 10 miles apart.
For years, the local school board has permitted hundreds of white students to transfer from Tylertown to Salem. Clennell Brown, president of the Walthall County NAACP, said he informed the Justice Department each time a transfer was approved.
“They just looked at the record and the record spoke for itself,” Brown said. “It’s not right.”
Brown contends that Tylertown is being shortchanged on state and federal dollars that follow students to the schools they attend.
McCallum said the Justice Department had wanted the changes to take effect immediately, but gave the district a reprieve since school begins on Aug. 10. Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar said if the district didn’t comply, the federal government could sue.
The district — like dozens of others across Mississippi — is governed by a 1970 court order to end segregation, Miyar said.
Federal officials said in a letter dated July 14 that the government had given the transfer policy tentative approval in 1992 as long as it didn’t have a negative impact on desegregation efforts. However, the district’s transfer policy has undermined attempts at racial balance, federal officials said.
Because of the way the school district lines are drawn, some students who are assigned to Tylertown, actually live closer to Salem, said McCallum.
The school board this week approved transfers for 309 students from Tylertown to Salem. About 250 of those were white.
“We won’t have any problems this year, but next year when it comes to make assignments for schools, there’s definitely going to be problems,” said Jay Boyd, a school board member.
Boyd and McCallum said the main reason for the transfers is that the students live closer to Salem Attendance even though they’re in the Tylertown district.
“When we get a mass transfer like this, it’s impossible to go through and consider what each person’s reason is,” Boyd said.
The Justice Department has given the district three criteria to consider in approving transfers in the fall of 2010: a well-documented medical emergency, a parent who works full-time in the school system and a minority transferring to a majority school population.
Federal officials are also demanding the district immediately change what they described as race-based class assignment in Tylertown.
Federal officials said in the letter “this practice of ‘clustering’ white students into designated classrooms violates the governing desegregation orders, as well as the constitutional rights of the black students who attend Tylertown schools.”
The district has begun looking at ways to rectify the situation to “spread whites out more,” McCallum said Thursday, hours before meeting with principals about the plans. He said the problem is that out of about 120 students in each grade at Tylertown’s primary and elementary schools, only about 25 are white.
“There’s just not enough white students to spread out evenly across seven groups,” McCallum said, referring to the classes.
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