Alabama judge rebukes school board in ruling on desegregation case

Nikole Hannah-Jones | 7/24/2014, 6 a.m.

A federal judge in Alabama has taken the rare step of ruling against a local school board in a desegregation case, rejecting the board’s claims that it had done all it could to end segregation in its schools.

In a lengthy, at times scathing ruling issued last month, U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala said she could not “conclusively” determine that the Huntsville City Schools District wasn’t still operating an unconstitutionally segregated system or that it had made a “good faith effort” to significantly integrate its schools. As a result, Haikala refused to approve a student assignment plan that had been proposed by the Huntsville school board.

The Huntsville ruling is important, both because the district is racially diverse and because it is the largest in the state still under federal mandate to desegregate.

In May, ProPublica published a story showing the state of inaction and confusion surrounding scores of federal school desegregation orders, the once-powerful tool for compelling school districts across the country to provide equal educational opportunities to students of color. Many of the orders had been allowed to sit dormant for decades, often with no one monitoring school officials to make sure they were complying with federal mandates to integrate. And in many other instances, judges had routinely lifted existing orders even when those districts remained highly segregated.

For some parents and civil rights lawyers, the inaction and allegedly one-sided decisions amounted to an abdication of responsibility by the country’s federal bench.

In Alabama, however, two federal judges, Judges Myron Thompson and William Harold Albritton III, had bucked the trend, refusing to see the decades-old orders as relics that should simply be brought to a close. And now, it looks like those two judges may have company.

“Until the board achieves the goal” of eliminating “segregation to the extent practicable,” Haikala wrote. “The Court must continue to supervise the Board’s efforts.”

In April, ProPublica chronicled the fortunes of the school district in Tuscaloosa, Ala. There, the city’s schools, after years of successful integration, had effectively been re-segregated after the district had won its freedom from a longstanding court order. ProPublica’s reporting showed that the re-segregation that had happened in Tuscaloosa was happening in school districts throughout the nation.

Huntsville’s schools have been under court order since 1965. Though the district itself is racially balanced, most of the district’s schools are either heavily white or heavily black. A new zoning plan proposed by the board in 2013 would have increased segregation for many black students.

The U.S. Department of Justice, a party to the case, objected to the assignment plan and in February the dispute landed before Haikala, who’d been appointed to the bench by President Obama in 2012.

In the judge’s 107-page ruling, she blasted school officials for failing to provide required reports on the district’s integration progress for two decades. She also criticized the Justice Department for failing to be “proactive” and to “keep an eye on” the marked disparities in schools serving mostly white children and those serving mostly black ones.