The metal detectors and police sharpshooters are long gone from South Boston High. These days, no one throws stones at black children who ride school buses into white neighborhoods.
More than a decade has passed since Boston's antibusing riots, and on the surface this city, booming with new skyscrapers and modern ideas, appears to have recovered from one of the ugliest school integration battles in the nation.
Reality is something else. Eleven years ago, U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity took control of the schools, charging that elected officials had deliberately operated a dual system. Today, the nation's oldest school system is more racially segregated than ever. Regardless of what busing has achieved elsewhere in the country, in Boston it is widely viewed by blacks and whites as a social experiment that tragically backfired.
This month, Garrity issued final orders in the case, turning over day-to-day operations to the now-integrated Boston School Committee. But he left behind 415 orders, and a system still beset with problems.
School enrollment has fallen from 94,000 pupils to 56,000, and a system that was 61 percent white in 1974 is now 73 percent minority. Most of the remaining whites are concentrated in kindergartens and in East Boston, both exempt from busing, or in the predominantly white Latin schools, where admission is by examination.
Bound by the court's rigid numerical quotas, most black schoolchildren now find themselves routinely bused across town to sit in overwhelmingly black classrooms.
During a decade of academic and administrative chaos, test scores plunged, the dropout rate soared, 70 schools closed and more than 1,000 teachers were laid off. In 11 years, the system has had eight superintendents. While there has been slow improvement in the last three years, few, if any, of those who abandoned the system for parochial or suburban schools show signs of returning.
"Parents, black and white, took their kids out of school, because they didn't see a future for public education," said Mayor Raymond Flynn, who has five children in parochial schools and one at an experimental public school. Today, he said, "People want to put the polarization and divisiveness behind them. But it's not going to happen overnight."
In a friendly gesture, Flynn, who a decade ago marched in antibusing rallies, invited the city's first black school superintendent to the opera last week. A Boston Globe columnist greeted new Superintendent Laval S. Wilson somewhat differently: "Welcome to Boston, Mr. Wilson. We hope you have a few miracles in the works."
But in many quarters of the city, bitterness prevails. "They're in a self-congratulatory stage in the city," said William Bulger, president of the Massachusetts Senate. "But I think of the Vietnam analogy. After the devastation, you declare victory and walk away."
Even the most unreconstructed busing critics, such as South Bostonian Bulger, agree with Garrity that, in 1974, Boston schools were in need of reform. School districts had been gerrymandered to separate the races. Of 150 elementary schools in 1973, the court found that 62 were more than 96 percent white, and 32 were more than 85 percent black.
But when the city's all-white school committee refused to draw up a busing plan -- a resistance unprecedented among northern cities subjected to court-ordered busing -- Garrity brought in experts who devised a plan so inflexible, and so indifferent to the sensitivities of the city's insular neighborhoods, that it sparked a savage rebellion.
"The discrimination was stunning," said Ellen Guiney, head of City-wide Education Coalition, a local civic group. "The entrance of the judge was a good thing in that it wrested the school system away from the Irish and Italian politicians who viewed it as theirs for patronage and theirs for their children, but who weren't willing to give blacks the same chance."
However, Guiney added, "In hindsight, the plan the judge imposed was disastrous . . . . disruptive and cataclysmic. The burden was placed on the poor. The people who had the least had to put their children on buses and send them into high-crime neighborhoods."
Garrity's plan paired South Boston, poor and Irish, with Roxbury, poor and black. Even communities that were relatively well integrated, in Dorchester and the South End, were forced to bus their children across town, according to a strict mathematical formula.
Unlike Buffalo, where court-ordered busing was introduced in phases beginning nine years ago, Boston was given little time to adjust to Garrity's orders, issued in June 1974 and imposed the following September. "The way the whole thing was handled created a feeling of despair," Mayor Flynn said. "The government provided no role for parents, black or white. The political process broke down. If there had been greater community and parental dialogue, the results would have been much different."
Disillusion among black parents is high. In 1982, Larry Johnson, then attorney for the black plaintiffs, asked the court to scrap mandatory busing, saying it had failed to produce quality education. Garrity rejected their request for "freedom of choice."
However, a Boston Globe poll found that 79 percent of black parents favored the "freedom of choice" plan. Fewer than half said they had supported court-ordered busing in 1974.
Last summer, another Globe poll found that 43 percent of black parents thought schools were getting worse, as compared to 42 percent who thought they were getting better; a similar split was found among white parents.
"The school department says they want a racial mix," said Gwendolyn Collins-Stephens, a black parent from working-class Dorchester. "But basically, you're busing one group of black children from one end of town to another."
Collins-Stephens and her six children live on Thane Street. On the even-numbered side, children are bused to one school. On the odd-numbered side, they go to a different school. "Busing took away the community feeling we had for our neighborhood schools," she said. "The feeling of 'It's our school and we love it.' "
On the one hand, Collins-Stephens applauds Garrity's intervention. "I respect the man," she said. "He pulled the cover off all these racist things that were going on here."
On the other hand, she said her children don't seem to be getting an education much different from the one she received as a child in Roxbury, and she deplores the racial animosity that resulted from busing. "Before busing, we went to South Boston. We had white friends there -- one of my foster sisters lived in the D Street public housing projects. But after busing came, friends were at each other's throats. I don't go there anymore."
Some positive reforms have emerged from the court orders, however. Magnet schools offer special programs. Businesses and universities have paired with individual schools, offering grants and job incentives. Patronage has not disappeared, but it goes to blacks as well as whites. The proportion of black teachers and administrators has risen under court quotas.
"Overall, the system has come a long way," said John O'Bryant, the first black elected to the school committee. "We've survived the chaos and we're moving forward."
However, O'Bryant, a former public school teacher, took his five children out of the system after busing began. "The schools were in anarchy," he said. For several years, his children were bused to the suburbs under a state-funded program that sends 3,500 blacks, including many of the best athletes and scholars, to predominantly white schools outside the city.
Some sociologists argue that the schools would have become majority black and Hispanic, even without busing. However, the city as a whole, while it has lost population, is still more than 70 percent white. After busing, parochial schools shrank far more slowly than public schools. At South Boston High, the only school to be placed directly under court receivership in the history of school desegregation, Jerome Winegar, the court-installed principal, stands in the marble lobby each morning as yellow buses disgorge hundreds of black, Hispanic and Cambodian youngsters.
"When I came here nine years ago, there were metal detectors, and 90 police officers in the halls," to protect students from racial violence, Winegar said, "but I haven't heard a racial slur in six years."
The school, which serves mostly poor students from public housing projects, is 37 percent black, 31 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic and 14 percent Asian, he said, consulting the green and white computer printouts stacked in the offices of every school administrator.
Before Garrity, South Boston High was all white, an overcrowded, dilapidated school that was a focal point for "Southie," as the neighborhood calls itself. Now, only 300 of Southie's 1,500 high school-age students go there.
"Busing took a lot of the spirit out of South Boston," said Councilman James Kelly, a former sheet metal worker. "On Thanksgiving Day, 10,000 people went to the Southie-Eastie football game against East Boston . Now, you won't find 50 people there. To the liberals, you could never put into words what a sacred tradition that was. Graduates took their sons. To be a football star at South Boston was a mark of honor."
Throughout the system, "sports and extracurricular activities went down the drain" after busing, said Ian Foreman, the schools' public information director. "Boston's teams were once class A. Now they're class E. They play Martha's Vineyard and Cuttyhunk," rural enclaves.
Nonetheless, while Southie's parents are unforgiving, some of their sons and daughters have survived the ordeal with a spirit of optimism. "Southie High is the best!" said Mia Boulet, 17, who lives two blocks from the school. Busing began when she was in second grade. "We all got along," she said. "Now blacks date whites. Everybody's more or less color-blind."
Despite signs of improvement, Boston's public schools still remain a place for people who can't afford to go elsewhere. Sixty percent of its pupils come from families on welfare. Three-quarters live in single-parent homes.
"The cynicism and the injustice was that anyone who had the money could get out of it," said Bulger, who has taken the last of his nine children out of the public schools. "The moral high ground," he said, was taken by "those whose children were unaffected, the judge who lives in Wellesley, the Globe editors who live in Brookline and Lincoln, the court experts who live in Concord and Lexington," all wealthy suburbs.
"Those who opposed busing were smeared as racists . . . . Yet one of the great strengths of Boston is that it has been a city of neighborhoods. Busing broke apart so much of the fabric of this city."
Superintendent Wilson, now three weeks in office, must grapple with a system that will be defined by the 415 court orders Garrity left in place. The rules remain strict: blacks are not permitted to fill empty places at a $35 million vocational school in Roxbury, because not enough whites have enrolled there to achieve racial balance. Boston Latin cannot have renovation funds, because that would unevenly distribute money to a predominantly white school.
Wilson, with a reputation as a disciplinarian and a tough administrator, says he can live with the strictures.
"You have to have hope," he said. "The opening of school did not have people throwing bricks at each other . . . . The court order helped open up the system. You can have quality programs when you have predominantly black kids in the school system."