Federal judge mulls testimony in McComb schools desegregation case

Published 1:31 am Sunday, July 16, 2006

A federal judge has given the U.S. Department of Justice and the McComb School System an Aug. 7 deadline to file final briefs in efforts by the district to be released from a 1971 desegregation order.

U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee gave no indication of when he will rule on the case. Lee heard arguments this past week.

McComb schools Superintendent Pat Cooper has said the school district is racially unified, despite practices that create all-black classes in some grades.

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The Justice Department claims the majority-black school district is in violation of the desegregation consent decree by the way it places white students into the same classes at Otken and Kennedy elementary schools.

“We think we’re complying with the consent order all the way because we’re trying to offer the best education to all of our students,” Cooper testified at the hearing before Lee.

The school board voted 3-2 along racial lines in February 2004 to fight the government’s desegregation order. The three white school board members said the system, which is now more than 80 percent black, is desegregated and the order need no longer apply.

The Justice Department has questioned the district’s policy of clustering white elementary school students. Federal officials say it creates all-black classes, which the Justice Department says is a violation of the desegregation order.

Cooper testified that the policy is geared at making white students feel less isolated, and in the process, recruit more of them to the district, which has seen a constant decline in white enrollment.

“It’s trying to make a community school,” Cooper said. “We try to draw people back into the school, both black and white.”

White students lumped into the same classes still interact with black classmates during reading, music and physical education classes as well as recess and lunch, he said.

They are placed into classes based on the “20 percent rule” — a guideline Cooper suggests the federal Office of Civil Rights deems appropriate for assigning classes on a racial basis. It allows racial grouping, based on the racial percentage of the school.

The Justice Department contends the 20 percent rule only applies when assignments are based on academic abilities, not by race.