Breaking: Fourth Circuit sets Pitt County schools free from desegregation orders

Pitt County schools have fulfilled the obligations to effectively integrate their schools as required under desegregation orders first entered more than 40 years ago, and need no longer remain subject to federal oversight, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision released today.

Writing for the panel in Everett v. Pitt County Board of Education, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Albert Diaz said:

[W]e need look no further for proof than the fact that the desegregation orders remained administratively closed for over thirty-five years, during which time the Board undertook the task of integrating the schools relatively undisturbed. Until 2008, no party came before the district court accusing the Board of neglecting or disregarding its obligations under the desegregation orders. And when this case was reopened, it was as a consequence of a dispute regarding the 2006-07 student assignment plan in which certain parents essentially argued that the Board went too far in its efforts to desegregate the schools. Moreover, in the proceedings leading up to the district court’s 2009 consent order, Plaintiffs and the Board were both aligned in opposition to the Association’s motion for declaration of unitary status.

From the date the district court entered its desegregation orders, school administrators took immediate steps to effectively integrate their schools and move them toward unitary status. In very short order, both school districts had almost completely eliminated racially identifiable schools. While racial imbalance returned over the succeeding years, the respective boards consistently took measures to bring their schools back into balance.

Post-merger, the consolidated Board used satellite attendance areas and busing to maintain racial balance. When demographic factors caused an increase in racially identifiable schools, the Board took reasonable steps to restore balance. Ultimately, a substantial number of schools were able to achieve racial balance, and maintain it as of the 2011-12 school year. In short, we are convinced that the Board has acted in good faith since the entry of the desegregation orders in 1970.

Judge Paul Niemeyer joined in the opinion, but Judge James A. Wynn, Jr. dissented.

In finding that the district applied a flawed analysis and the majority on the appeals panel compounded that error, Wynn said:

Our consideration of this case does not occur in a vacuum. The rapid rate of de facto resegregation in our public school system in recent decades is well-documented. As one scholar put it, “Schools are more segregated today than they have been for decades, and segregation is rapidly increasing.”

Today the majority upholds the Board’s promulgation of a student assignment plan that, Appellants argue, furthers this trend. The majority reaches that result out of deference to a district court decision that utterly fails to analyze the facts in this case in compliance with this Court’s instructions and established Supreme Court precedent.

Though it is pleasing to hear that the district court takes comfort in the Supreme Court’s recent proclamation in Shelby County v. Holder, that our “Nation has made great strides” in ensuring the civil rights of minorities since the 1960s, these words are not a panacea for difficult cases involving race, particularly when the “facts on the ground” “caution . . . against” resting on the laurels of prior generations. Undeniably, in certain cases, there are other famous words that ring all the more true: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

For more on the arguments in the Fourth Circuit, read here.

For more on the Pitt County case and other continuing desegregation battles in the South, read here.

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Breaking: Fourth Circuit sets Pitt County schools free from desegregation orders