Education

Segregated classrooms in Mississippi aren’t a thing of the past. And parents play a role.

More than six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional, one Mississippi school district has largely segregated classrooms — some all-black, some majority white.

That continuing segregation is made possible by an informal “parental request” policy that allows parents to ask for specific teachers for their elementary-aged children at the 2,800-student Brookhaven School District, a 65 percent black district in southwest Mississippi.

And it’s a policy being used by both white families and black families.

Proponents defend the parental request policy, saying it allows parents to place their children with better teachers or with friends.

They also say the practice is better for the school district as a whole, as it helps keep white families in the district and keeps the district more racially diverse.

Black families also use the policy.

Patricia Williams McGrill-Tillman remembers taking advantage of the parental request policy when her grandson was a second-grader. The 76-year-old black owner of Williams Mortuary pulled the child out of a white teacher’s classroom because of a personal conflict with the student — not a racial issue — and the school placed him in another white teacher’s room that same day.

“It was an easy process,” she said. “I just talked to the principal.”

McGill-Tillman said she was “not at all surprised” to see all-black and majority white classrooms in Brookhaven schools, but said the groupings are not just a white phenomenon.

“I speak from the black side of it because that’s the side I know, but it appears this is coming from both sides, no question about it,” she said. “What I see here, from a brief observation, is most of the classrooms overpopulated with black students are taught by black teachers. That, then, is probably because of the preference of black parents — we’re talking about requests, and I’m feeling black parents are making requests that these children be placed under the instruction of black teachers.”

News of this parental request policy failed to shock Lori Bezahler, president of the Hazen Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes youth leadership and public education, because “we’re seeing school choice, which ostensibly offers greater access to education, being used a lot of places as a cover,” she said.

And that cover in some schools is based on race, she said. “Do people really think this is how to pursue equity?”

“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised,” said Bezahler, “but I am depressed, grieved and frustrated.”

U.S. Department of Justice files obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting show that administrators for several years have routinely carved out all-black classrooms while grouping the majority of white students together under a handful of teachers.

The reports, filed each fall as required by the district’s ongoing 1970 federal integration order, show no all-white classrooms, but all-black classrooms, or classrooms with black-to-white ratios far above the schools’ racial makeup, are common each year at Mamie Martin Elementary School, Brookhaven Elementary School and Lipsey Middle School, which cover kindergarten through sixth grade.

‘Violation of the 14th Amendment’

The Justice Department previously has argued that clustering white students into select classrooms, thereby creating all-black classes at the same grade level, is considered “segregating students in violation of the 14th Amendment.” The government has taken action against two of Brookhaven’s neighboring districts for similar practices.

In 2010, a federal judge ordered the Walthall County School District to use software to assign students to teachers to avoid the creation of all-black classrooms after the Justice Department found “administrators grouped, or clustered disproportionate numbers of white students into designated classrooms.” The district declined to fight the finding.

The federal government ruled against McComb schools for a similar practice in 2008, requiring the district to annually submit homeroom enrollment by race for two elementary schools, student and faculty votes for homecoming queen and a copy of the high school yearbook.

The Justice Department has not ruled on homerooms in Brookhaven schools, but the district remains under an ongoing 1970 federal integration order that requires it to submit annually the size and racial makeup of all homeroom classes, along with other demographic data.

The district has remained under the order since the federal government forced integration and has not attempted to free itself from federal oversight, even as other districts in Mississippi have successfully challenged the orders in recent years.

During the 2017-2018 school year, for instance, Brookhaven Elementary School’s student body was 70 percent black. Three classrooms were majority white. Three classrooms were virtually all black.

Similar classroom breakdowns were found at Mamie Martin and Lipsey and continue at those schools in the current school year.

This year, Brookhaven Elementary School has no all-black classrooms after former Principal Shelley Riley brought the parental request policy to light.

Public school supporters in Brookhaven fear the end of the parent request policy could lead to an exodus of white families from the public schools.

In the Mississippi Delta, Cleveland School District officials used a similar argument of preserving public schools for having one predominantly black high school and another racially mixed.

Much like Brookhaven’s parent request policy, the 65 percent black, 32 percent white Cleveland district allowed students to pick which neighborhood school they wanted to attend. Many black students chose predominantly black East Side High.

Two years ago, a Justice Department settlement put all high school students under one roof — Cleveland Central High. The 2017-2018 school year reflects a decline in white enrollment. The district was 71 percent black.

Education experts have long held that dividing students along racial lines negatively impacts their ability to learn. The U.S. Supreme Court took the same stance when striking down segregation in its 1954 ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, with Chief Justice Earl Warren writing that “separate but equal” is “inherently unequal.”

Racial segregation is not limited to Mississippi or the South.

A lawsuit filed in May 2018 in New Jersey calls for the statewide desegregation of’ that state’s public schools. The lawsuit, filed by a coalition of civil rights groups and students, is the fifth in the nation to take its legal challenge in state vs. federal court, relying on a state constitution. The others were in Connecticut, Minnesota and New York. Two were filed in New York.

Despite a history of legal efforts since 1881 that banned segregated schooling, New Jersey is the sixth most segregated state in the U.S. for black students and seventh for Latinos, according to the University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project. The plaintiffs are not seeking a specific remedy but endorsing such strategies as inter-district transfers and creating magnet schools, which worked to achieve racial diversity in Montclair, New Jersey, following a 1966 lawsuit against the district. That diversity remains today.

Unlike Brookhaven, however, the issue in New Jersey and other states where such lawsuits have been filed in state courts pertains to entire schools being segregated, not classrooms within a school.

‘Board allows this practice to continue’

Parental request is no secret in Brookhaven.

Queen Hawkins, a retired black teacher, remembers the policy from her teaching days in the district. She said she raised concerns with her supervisors, but never received a satisfactory answer.

“I am concerned the Brookhaven school board allows this practice to continue,” she said. “It is amazing these reports are sent to the Justice Department, and no one questions the information.”

Superintendent Ray Carlock has defended the practice, adding, “We do what’s best for the child, not necessarily what’s best for the parent.”

In a hearing last year over former Principal Riley’s termination, former district teacher and tutor Judy Boggan testified that affluent white citizens are given more consideration when moving their children between classrooms.

Riley testified that the superintendent pressured her to grant a parent request from a well-known white parent.

While majority-black classrooms are taught by black and white teachers, the data reveals majority-white classrooms are almost always taught by white teachers. In the five years of data examined for this story, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting could identify just two black teachers who taught majority-white classrooms.

McGill-Tillman, the grandmother who used the parental request policy herself, still sees problems with its use.

“It seems totally unfair to segregate black students or white students,” McGill-Tillman said. “How do you assess the quality of instruction when you group students like that? I don’t see it as culturally and socially a good experience from the standpoint of getting along. Some words I don’t want to use, but from a standpoint of Americans living together and working together, it has to start in the elementary schools.”

Corey Wiggins, executive director of NAACP Mississippi, said the learning experience for both black and white students must be fair, regardless.

“You want to make sure all children have access to education that will put them in the best position to succeed in life,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is be in a situation where we are furthering or expanding inequities that are determined, or predetermined, on race.”

Arguments that Brookhaven’s parental request policy keeps white families in school are misguided, he said.

“The question should be about, ‘How do we create an education system for children that provides them with the tools and resources they need?’” he said. “If this conversation does not focus on educating children, we are doing a disservice to the children.”

Brookhaven Alderwoman-at-Large Karen Sullivan, a former Brookhaven teacher, said she never sought specific teachers when her four children, now grown, were in school.

“They all had extraordinary educational experiences in the Brookhaven School District,” said Sullivan, who is white. “I feel that meeting new students and having teachers they may not have had otherwise if I had chosen their teachers was exceptionally valuable. If parents would allow themselves to trust the system, I believe they would be just as happy with their child’s education.”

‘Still about separate but equal?’

More than a dozen requests for interviews with school officials, elected leaders and retired teachers were turned down. All seven members of the Brookhaven Board of Aldermen and all five members of the school board were mailed, emailed and hand-delivered copies of the Justice Department reports and a series of questions, but Sullivan was the only official to respond.

The Mississippi Department of Education said it does not regulate classroom balance according to race, leaving the decision up to the districts.

Asked about the segregated classrooms, Kelly Laco, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, replied, “The United States is carefully monitoring the school district’s compliance with its obligations under the (desegregation) order.”

Brookhaven’s Curtis Oliver, 60, who is black, questioned why the parental request policy still exists. “When you have classes that are 22-0,” he said, “somebody should want to know why.”

Oliver, CEO of Faces of Recovery Mississippi, graduated from Brookhaven High School in 1976, just six years after the district was integrated. Back in Brookhaven since 2012, he wonders why such segregation persists.

“Is this still about separate but equal?” Oliver asked. “We’ve achieved integration, but with these present numbers, did we achieve equality?”

This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities.

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