RALEIGH — Claiming that the resegregation of Wake County public schools has already begun, the state NAACP has launched a far-reaching legal effort to stop the transformation of North Carolina's largest school district.
State and national leaders of the civil rights organization gathered at a downtown church Saturday to announce a federal civil rights complaint accusing the Wake County school system of racial discrimination over student assignment and disciplinary issues.
School board members Ron Margiotta and John Tedesco quickly denounced the legal action as lacking merit and distracting from their efforts to assign students closer to home and to improve academic achievement.
The complaint, filed late Friday, is part of an effort to block the new school board majority from moving forward with assigning students under a neighborhood zone system that would replace a diversity-based plan. Joining the NAACP as parties in the complaint were the youth group N.C. HEAT (Heroes Emerging Among Teens) and Quinton White, a high school senior who was reassigned by the school board this year.
The complaint cites student reassignment changes made this year by the new board, the new assignment plan under development, and disproportionately harsh discipline of minority students.
It claims the Wake school system has violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits groups that receive federal dollars from engaging in discrimination. The Wake school system received nearly $78 million in federal funds last fiscal year.
The federal government rarely declares that groups are violating Title VI, said Wendy Parker, a Wake Forest University School of Law professor and expert on civil rights law. But judging by the national attention the Wake fight has received, Parker said it's likely that officials will investigate and put more of a spotlight on the situation.
"This investigation is not something they're going to put on the back burner," Parker said.
The state NAACP used Title VI to file a federal civil rights complaint in December accusing the Wayne County school system of discrimination. Federal officials are still investigating the Wayne County complaint.
News and worship
Pastors and lawyers spoke passionately Saturday at a gathering at Christian Faith Baptist Church. It was part news conference, part worship service. A multiracial crowd of about 100 people cheered and sprinkled the speeches with echoes of "amen" and "tell it."
Ben Jealous, the national president and CEO of the NAACP, spoke of the need for Wake County school officials to build upon the successes of the county's diversity policy, not tear it down.
"In this country, where we all have to spend so much time fixing what's broke," Jealous said to cheers, "how dare you come in and break what's fixed?"
But Margiotta, chairman of the school board, argued that the system is already broken. He pointed to low test scores and low graduation rates for low-income and minority children under the old assignment policy. He immediately dismissed the civil rights organizations' claims as lacking merit.
"These are all distractions that are trying to take us away from our job of educating the kids," Margiotta said Saturday. "We're not going to let this distraction take away from our focus on academic achievement."
Tedesco pointed out that the board is revising the suspension and expulsion policies questioned in the complaint. Those policies were in place when the new board took office in December.
"If anything, it shows how out of touch they are with what's really going on," he said.
The school board is already facing a wide-ranging special review of its policy decisions, including its elimination of the diversity policy, from AdvancED, the Georgia-based organization that accredits Wake's high schools. That review was also generated by a state NAACP complaint.
Now investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights may also come to Raleigh in response to the new federal complaint.
3 NAACP arguments
Officials of the NAACP are basing their complaint on three legal arguments.
The first argument is that the school board approved reassignment changes for this school year that were based on the race of the students and thus "intentionally discriminatory." The NAACP is citing the reassignment of minority students from Garner High School to Southeast Raleigh High School and the movement of mainly white students from Stough Elementary to Lacy Elementary.
"The Board was implementing the will of a well-organized and vocal set of parents who want to live in racially-isolated neighborhoods and send their children to racially-isolated schools," the complaint said.
The students moved from Garner High live in Southeast Raleigh. The NAACP cites long-standing complaints by Garner elected officials, community leaders and parents that the town's schools have excessively high percentages of poor students because of busing from Southeast Raleigh.
Carolyn Morrison, a member of the school board minority, agreed with the language of the complaint on that issue.
"I really think there has been intentional resegregation," she said. "Many times when I have offered amendments, to say we are not looking to have high-poverty or segregated schools, they would not support that. That to me is intentional."
Capacity, not race
Tedesco said race was never taken into consideration in reassigning students from Garner to Southeast Raleigh.
"What it was all about, it was about capacity," Tedesco said. "Garner High School last year had to open a 'trailer-teria' because they were so overcrowded."
The Lacy moves represented the reversal of the old board's decision in 2009 to move those children to Stough Elementary. Many of the Lacy parents, who lived in or near the Glen Eden neighborhood in Raleigh, helped raise money for the new board members during the school board election campaign last fall.
Dana Cope, noting that he was a lifelong member of the NAACP, called it "offensive" to say that the parents wanted to return to Lacy for racial reasons.
"People wanted to go to the neighborhood school they had supported," said Cope, who is also executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.
The NAACP's second legal argument focuses on the new community assignment zones being developed to replace the diversity-based system. A school board committee is working on a new model, loosely based on current high school attendance boundaries, that would divide the county into 16 zones.
The complaint contends that the new zones will segregate schools and deny students of color access to educational opportunities.
Tedesco said the complaint is premature because it ignores elements of the plan yet to come, focusing only on preliminary maps.
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 overhauling the discipline policies.
More legal action?
The federal complaint culminates months of threats of legal action from the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. On Saturday, he warned that the state chapter still may file a lawsuit in addition to this federal civil rights complaint.
He vowed to not back down from his fight in Wake County, saying the NAACP is not in this to cut backroom deals or play games with our children's future."
"Don't ask us to compromise on something less than what our forefathers and foremothers have already fought for," he added.
Tedesco said he and his colleagues won't be slowed in their drive to bring a new assignment and academic model to Wake schools, even though the process may be costly to the system.
"The NAACP wants to take money out of the classroom and put it in the courtroom," Tedesco said.
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