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Appeals Court Upholds End to Desegregation Order for N.C. District

A federal appeals court has upheld a finding that a North Carolina school district had achieved unitary status, over a dissent and objections from a community group that student racial imbalance had increased in recent years.

"We find that the district court did not clearly err in finding that the school district has eliminated the vestiges of its past discrimination," said the majority of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va.

The decision concerns the 24,000-student Pitt County school district in the Eastern part of the state, which was first sued for desegregation in 1965 and has been under federal court supervision since 1970. The district's current enrollment is about 48 percent black, 38 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic, 3.4 percent multiracial, and the rest Asian or American Indian, according to its Web site.

The latest action in the case has its roots in 2008, when a local parents' group objected to the Pitt County district's continued use of race in making student assignments. A federal district judge in Greenville, N.C., ordered the parties to work toward attaining unitary, or legally desegregated, status for the district.

In 2011, another community group objected to the student assignment plan for the 2011-12 school year. A review in the courts of that plan led the Pitt County board of education to ask the judge to simply declare the system unitary.

After a five-day bench trial, the judge granted the school district's request. The judge found that the district had been unitary with respect to student assignments for quite some time, since before the Pitt County and the Greenville city school districts had consolidated in 1986. The judge then found that the Pitt County district was now unitary with regard to faculty and staff assignment, facilities, transportation, and extracurricular activities.

The parents' group appealed, and in its June 3 decision in Everett v. Pitt County Board of Education, the 4th Circuit court said the district court was within its powers to decide the unitary status issue at the request of the board, despite the lingering objection over the 2011-12 assignment plan. 

And on the merits of the unitary finding, "We agree with the district court that, to the extent that racial imbalance remains an issue in the school district, there is substantial evidence indicating that it was caused by white students either leaving the public school system, or moving to more racially segregated neighborhoods," Judge Albert Diaz wrote for the majority.

"Any remaining segregation in the school district is a consequence of outside forces that cannot properly be attributed to the Board's prior discriminatory acts," Diaz said.

Writing in dissent, Judge James A. Wynn Jr. said the district court should have fully weighed the effects of the 2011-12 plan before deciding whether the school system was unitary.

He referred to the work of legal scholars showing that the nation's schools are more racially segregated today than they have been for decades, and that the resegregation is continuing.

"Our consideration of this case does not occur in a vacuum," Wynn said. "The rapid rate of de facto resegregation in our public school system [nationally] in recent decades is well-documented."

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