By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; A01
TYLERTOWN, MISS. -- During her elementary school years in this rural Mississippi town, Addreal Harness, a competitive teenager with plans to be a doctor, said her classes had about the same numbers of white and black students. It was a fact she took little note of until the white kids began leaving.
Some left in seventh grade, even more in eighth, and by the time Harness, who is African American, reached Tylertown High School, she became aware of talk that has slowly seeped into her 16-year-old psyche -- that some white parents call Tylertown "the black school," while Salem Attendance Center, where many of her white classmates transferred, is known as "the white school."
"In my class of 2012, there's just seven white girls now," said Harness, raising her chin slightly. "The ones that left, they think Salem's smarter because they have more white kids, but it's not."
Last week, a federal judge ruled that a school board policy here in Walthall County has had the effect of creating "racially identifiable" schools in violation of a 1970 federal desegregation order. Although the case is unique in some ways, it fits a broader trend toward racial isolation that has been underway for years in American schools and has undermined the historic school integration efforts of the civil rights era.
More than half a century after courts dismantled the legal framework that enforced segregation, Obama administration officials are investigating an array of practices across the country that contribute to a present-day version that they say is no less insidious.
Although minority students have the legal right to attend any school, federal officials are questioning whether in practice many receive less access than white students to the best teachers, college prep courses and other resources. Department of Education lawyers also are investigating whether minority students are being separated into special education classes without justification, whether they are being disciplined more harshly and whether districts are failing to provide adequate English language programs for students who are not fluent, among other issues.
The Walthall County case fell under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department, which is still monitoring more than 200 mostly Southern school districts for compliance with desegregation orders dating to the 1960s and '70s. Justice officials said they have sometimes found that local school boards have adopted policies that undermine those orders, a situation that some experts say reflects a misguided sense that civil rights concerns are somehow a thing of the past.
Studies have shown schools drifting back into segregation since the 1980s, when the federal government became less aggressive in its enforcement. The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that school districts cannot make racial balance a policy goal unless -- as is the case in Walthall -- they are attempting to comply with a federal desegregation order.
"School boards are constantly under pressure from privileged parts of their districts, and if there isn't any counterbalance of civil rights enforcement policy, you can easily end up with a set of decisions that increase segregation," said Gary Orfield, director of the civil rights project at the University of California at Los Angeles. Its studies that show that 38 percent of black students and 40 percent of Latino students attend public schools that are more than 90 percent minority.
In Walthall County, an area with sprawling green lawns and hot pink azaleas near the Louisiana border, the main employers are the county and small factories that make truck pallets and military uniforms. The school district has three attendance zones serving about 2,500 students, with 64 percent of them black and 34 percent white.
In recent years, the school board, which has three black and three white members, approved hundreds of requests from mostly white parents to transfer their children out of their zoned school, the majority-black Tylertown, to Salem, which has since the early 1990s become a majority white school.
White parents sometimes defended their requests by explaining that they live closer to Salem. More frequently, though, they employed the vague reason that their kids would be "more comfortable" at Salem, whose academic record and course offerings are similar to Tylertown's.
"I didn't realize it was getting to the point anyone should worry about it," said Jay Boyd, the school board president, who is white. "I just thought we need to do what's best for students -- if they're happy, let them go to Salem. Who's it hurting?"
A federal judge answered that question last week, ruling that the transfers created "racially identifiable" schools in the district. The judge also found that Tylertown's elementary schools were concentrating white students into certain classrooms, a practice some school officials have defended as necessary to avoid white flight from the county.
"We said we're going back to where it was before 1970," said Clennel Brown, who heads the local NAACP branch that complained to the Justice Department. "When the white parents say 'more comfortable,' to me it's saying 'I don't want my child to be influenced by black children.' "
Although the court ruling did not explicitly address the question of intent, Brown and others here noted that the transfers by white families gathered speed several years ago, after Tylertown, which was the official black high school under the old segregated system, got its first African American principal since desegregation in 1970. At Salem, which was the white school in the Jim Crow era, the principals have always been white.
Brown and others also noted that at Tylertown, white children and parents rarely attend graduation ceremonies, and that white students have often held a separate prom out of town. Until recently, Salem voted for separate black and white homecoming courts.
Boyd, the school board president, reluctantly acknowledged that racism probably played a role in the transfer requests. "I thought that was a thing of the past," he said. "You live and you learn."
The court order mandates that the white students who transferred to Salem, with some exceptions, must return to Tylertown next school year, a situation that has upset students and teachers. Many say that despite the school board policy, both Tylertown and Salem remain more integrated than many schools across the country. Tylertown is 76 percent black and 22 percent white; Salem is 33 percent black and 66 percent white.
Over the years, white and black students and teachers have formed friendships and in other intangible ways reaped some benefit from the very diversity that the court ruling is attempting to protect.
"I have felt we had something very special here," said Lyshon Harness, an African American who is an assistant teacher at Salem and a relative of Addreal Harness.
"Last night," added Judy Walters, an assistant teacher who is white, "I heard someone saying on TV that we're 'hillbillies from Mississippi,' saying we need to move on. But you go up north, and it's real bad."
Indeed, in a nation where housing patterns remained profoundly shaped by race, many schools could easily be categorized by the dominant racial group attending them. Walthall County got particular scrutiny because of its desegregation order and because the board adopted policies that had the effect of sharpening the racial identity of their schools.
The ruling has led some white parents in Walthall County to reconsider the systemic effects of individual choice. Roger Ginn, a white parent whose children graduated from both Tylertown and Salem, said he'd always considered the transfer issue a simple matter of student happiness, not race.
"But if all that adds up to segregated schools?" he asked, and then paused for a while. "That wouldn't be right, no."