By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; 2:58 PM
A federal judge Tuesday ordered a rural county in southwestern Mississippi to stop segregating its schools by grouping African American students into all-black classrooms and allowing white students to transfer to the county's only majority-white school, the U.S. Justice Department announced.
The order, issued by Senior Judge Tom S. Lee of the U.S. District Court of Southern Mississippi, came after Justice Department civil rights division lawyers moved to enforce a 1970 desegregation case against the state and Walthall County.
Known as Mississippi's cream pitcher for its dairy farms and bordering Louisiana 80 miles north of New Orleans, Walthall County has a population of about 15,000 people that includes about 54 percent white residents and 45 percent African American residents, according to the U.S. Census.
For years, the local school board has permitted hundreds of white students to transfer from its Tylertown schools, which are about 75 percent African American and serve about 1,700 students, to another school, the Salem Attendance Center, which is about 66 percent white and serves about 577 students in grades K-12. The schools are about 10 miles apart.
Salem became "a racially identifiable white school while the student enrollment of the Tylertown schools has become predominantly black" because of the transfers, U.S. officials alleged in December, based on data from the 2007-08 school year, according to Lee's order.
At the same time in Tylertown four K-12 schools, "District administrators group, or 'cluster,' disproportionate numbers of white students into designated classrooms . . . resulting in significant numbers of segregated, all-black classrooms at each grade level," the judge wrote, summarizing the Justice Department lawyers' case.
The Walthall County School District did not file a response to the case, Lee wrote in approving the government's desegregation plan.
"More than 55 years after Brown v. Board of Education, it is unacceptable for school districts to act in a way that encourages or tolerates the resegregation of public schools," said Thomas E. Perez, U.S. assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division, in a written statement. "We will take action so that school districts subject to federal desegregation orders comply with their obligation to eliminate vestiges of separate black and white schools."
Walthall County School Superintendent Danny McCallum declined to comment, saying he had just received the judge's order. The school system's lawyer, Conrad Moore, did not immediately respond to messages left with his office.
Walthall school officials have said they will comply with the consent decree. But they have pointed out that because of how district lines are drawn, some students within Tylertown boundary lines actually live closer to Salem. They have also said there are not enough white students remaining to spread out evenly across Tylertown classes.
Overall, Walthall County's six schools serve about 2,500 students, 64 percent of them black and 35 percent white.
Lee required county schools, starting this fall, to bar student transfers within the district except in cases involving a risk to the child's health or safety, major hardship, a parent employed at the receiving school or a resulting reduction of the racial disparity in both the child's old and new schools. Rising seniors set to graduate in 2011 would also be exempted.
The court also ordered Tylertown schools to stop using race in classroom assignments "in a manner that results in racial segregation of students," adopting instead random, computer-generated assignments in most cases.
According to county data requested by the U.S. Justice Department in 2007, Walthall County schools allowed transfers that made the racial composition of Salem's student body "fifteen percent more white" in the 2007-08 school year, or 66 percent instead of 51 percent. If the transferred students stayed at Tylertown schools, white students would have represented 31 percent of students, up from 22 percent.