Federal civil rights complaint filed against Wake schools

Staff writersSeptember 25, 2010 

— The state NAACP announced today that it has filed a federal civil rights complaint accusing the Wake County school system of racial discrimination over student assignment and disciplinary issues.

The complaint, filed late Friday afternoon, is part of an effort to block the new school board majority from moving forward with neighborhood schools. The complaint cites actions ranging from student reassignment changes made this year by the new board to the new assignment plan being developed to how minority students are disproportionately disciplined.

The complainants are local, state and national chapters of the NAACP, the youth group N.C. HEAT (Heroes Emerging Among Teens) and Quinton White, a student who was reassigned this year by the school board. They’re asking the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to intervene.

A new school board majority that took office Dec. 1 after last fall’s elections eliminated the longstanding diversity based student assignment policy. A school board committee is working on a new model, loosely basely on current high school attendance boundaries, that would divide the county into 16 zones.

Members of the board majority say the new model will provide parents with more stability and choice and allow children to go to schools in their community. They contend the diversity policy failed because of the low test scores and graduation rates for minority and poor children.

School board chairman Ron Margiotta dismissed the new federal complaint as  being "weak" and a "distraction." He said it represents yet another attempt by a vocal minority who are upset with last year's election results.

"These are all distractions that are trying to take us away from our job of educating the kids," Margiotta said today. "We're not going to let this distraction take away from our focus on academic achievement."

But opponents of the new board claim the new assignment plan will lead to resegregation.

NAACP leaders, both national and local, met Saturday to announce their first step to harnessing the laws circumvent the new assignment plan. Pastors and lawyers spoke passionately about the need to protect the county's children from being burdened by the same segregation that burdened African Americans as recently as the 1960s in North Carolina.

"That's why it is so tragic that people are trying to take us back down that road," The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. "For folks to want to go backward, that's tragic." Ben Jealous, the national president and CEO of the NAACP, spoke Saturday about the need for Wake County school officials to spend their time building upon the successes of the country's diversity policy, not tear it down.

"In this county, where we all have to spend so much time fixing what's broke," Jealous said, meeting cheers Saturday morning. "How dare you come in and break what's fixed."

The complaint filed Friday is based on Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that bars groups that receive federal funding from engaging in discrimination. In the last school year, Wake County's school system received nearly $78 million in federal funds.

Mark Dorosin, a senior attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights who helped draft the complaint, said the complaint is based on three arguments.

Dorosin said the first argument is that the new board majority made reassignment moves this year with “discriminatory intent.” He cited the reassignment of black students from Garner High to Southeast Raleigh High and of white students from Stough Elementary to Lacy Elementary.

The new board had moved more than 1,000 students to different schools for this fall after adjusting the reassignment plan agreed to by the old board.

Dorosin said the second argument is that the new community assignment zones being developed will have disparate impact on minority students. They're contending the new zones will segregate schools and deny students of color access to educational opportunities.

The third argument is that Wake suspends and expels a disproportionately high percentage of black and minority students. The new board majority has acknowledged that the district was suspending too many students and is in the process of overhauling the discipline policies.

Barber, president of the state NAACP, has been threatening legal action against the school board for months. He warned today that they still may file a lawsuit in addition to this federal civil rights complaint.

Barber had filed a similar Title VI complaint to accuse the Wayne County school system of engaging in segregation.

Barber also filed the complaint that’s led to AdvancED, which accredits Wake’s 24 high schools, to conduct a special review.

On Saturday, Barber vowed to not back down from his fight in Wake County.

"The NAACP now our partners are not in this to cut backroom deals or play games with our children's future," Barber said Saturday. "Don't ask us to compromise on something less than what our forefathers and foremothers have already fought for. We will use every means of direct action, legal and political, in the streets, in the suites, to fight for a constitutionally diverse high quality well funded education for every child."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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