63 years after landmark Brown v. Board case, segregated classrooms persist

Adam Northam

Note: 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.

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

And it's a policy being used by both white families and black families in Brookhaven.

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.

Patricia Williams McGill-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 one 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.”

Majority white classrooms and virtually all black classrooms are the norm at Mamie Martin Elementary School in Brookhaven, a situation also seen at Brookhaven Elementary School and Lipsey Middle School.

McGill-Tillman said she was “not at all surprised” to see all-black and majority white classrooms in Brookhaven schools.

“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,” McGill-Tillman said.

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News of Brookhaven's 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. “Unfortunately, I’m not surprised,” said Bezahler, “but I am depressed, grieved and frustrated.”

School segregation on the rise across US

This comes at a time when many of the nation’s public schools have begun to segregate again. Since 2001, the number of highly segregated public schools in the U.S. has more than doubled.

2016 study by the Government Accountability Office concluded that poor, African American and Hispanic students have been increasingly isolated from their affluent, white peers in these schools. The proportion of schools segregated by race and class climbed from 9% in 2001 to 16% in 2014.

“Unfortunately, there is segregation in schools based on disproportional opportunities afforded students,” said Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, dean of American University’s School of Education.

Impoverished schools see far fewer math, science and college prep courses, according to the study.

“Gifted programs and classes in many schools are disproportionately white because of well-documented biased identification process,” Holcomb-McCoy said. “The opposite is true for lower-tiered or special education classes, which tend to be overly male and males of color.”

FILE - This May 8, 1964 file photo shows Linda Brown Smith standing in front of the Sumner School in Topeka, Kansas. The refusal of the public school to admit Brown in 1951, then nine years old, because she is black, led to the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the "separate but equal" clause and mandated that schools nationwide must be desegregated. Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Many inequities in education still exist for black students and for Hispanics, a population that has grown exponentially since the 1954 ruling. (AP Photo, File)

U.S. Department of Justice files obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting show that Brookhaven administrators for several years have routinely maintained 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.

Justice: Segregated classrooms violate 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, segregates 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 a disproportionate numbers of white students into some 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.

The Brookhaven School District is under a long-standing federal desegregation order, but many of its elementary classrooms are segregated by race, which some residents attribute to the district's parental choice policy. During the 2017-2018 school year, Brookhaven Elementary School’s student body was 70 percent black, yet three classrooms were majority white and three classrooms virtually all black. There are no all-black classrooms this year after the policy came to light.

This year, Brookhaven Elementary School has no all-black classrooms after former principal Shelley Riley brought the parental request policy to light. But public-school supporters in Brookhaven fear the end of the 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 to explain having one predominantly black high school and another racially mixed. 

Much like Brookhaven’s parent request policy, the 65% black, 32% 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% 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.”

The Hillsboro City Board of Education is shown in session, April 9, 1956 as it decided not to oppose further a U.S. Court of Appeals decision which directed immediate racial integration of elementary schools. The appeals court decision reversed a previous decision of U.S. District Judge John H. Druffel, Cincinnati. The board tonight also decided to again refer the case to Judge Druffel, who is awaiting a writ of the appeals court decision. From left to right: City Solicitor James O. Hapner, Wilfred Paul, school superintendent Paul L. Upp; Elmer Hedges, Dr. William Lukens, board president; Charles Harsha, and John H. Brown. (AP Photo/Harvey Eugene Smith)

The uptick in racial segregation in public schools 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, where two lawsuits were filed.

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. 

‘I am concerned the Brookhaven school board allows this practice to continue’

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.”

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.

“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. ... 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.

“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 choice 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.”

‘Is this 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 resident Curtis Oliver, 60, who is black, questioned why the parental request policy still exists. Oliver, CEO of Faces of Recovery Mississippi, graduated from Brookhaven High School in 1976, just six years after the district was integrated.

“When you have classes that are 22-0,” he said, “somebody should want to know why.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 63 years after landmark Brown v. Board case, segregated classrooms persist