U.S. v. Lawrence County School Dist., 86-4047

Citation799 F.2d 1031
Decision Date15 September 1986
Docket NumberNo. 86-4047,86-4047
Parties36 Ed. Law Rep. 15 UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff, Sheanda Bryant, et al., Intervenors-Appellants, Cross-Appellees, v. LAWRENCE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants-Appellees, Cross-Appellants.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)

Suzanne Griggins, Mendenhall, Miss., for intervenors-appellants, cross-appellees.

Frank D. Allen, Jr., U.S. Dept. of Justice, Appellate Sec., Civil Div., Washington, D.C., Kenneth Rutherford, Jackson, Miss., Wm. Bradford Reynolds, Brian K. Landsberg, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Appellate Sec., Civil Div., Washington, D.C., Dale F. Schwindaman, Jackson, Miss., Malcolm Rogers, Monticello, Miss., for defendants-appellees, cross-appellants.

Jeanne Pettanati, Educational Opportunities Litigation Section, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C., for other interested parties.

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

Before WISDOM, RUBIN, and HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judges.

ALVIN B. RUBIN, Circuit Judge:

A school board that had unconstitutionally segregated students by race was ordered by this court in 1969 to desegregate in accordance with a plan incorporated into this court's decree. After the case had been remanded to the district court, the school board violated some of the terms of the desegregation order. The key issues are whether the school system has previously been declared unitary in the sense of being desegregated, and, if not, whether the court is now limited to ordering the school board to comply with the original desegregation plan or whether the court may order changes in the plan in an effort to further the establishment of a unitary school district--i.e., a district in which schools are not identifiable by race and students and faculty are assigned in a manner that eliminates the vestiges of past segregation.


Lawrence County is a rural county in south-central Mississippi. Its total population is 12,518, 30% of which is black, and its student population is 2,781, 44% of which is black. The county has only two towns of any size, Monticello and New Hebron. Monticello is located in the county's center and has a racially mixed population of 1,834, 20% black. New Hebron is located in the extreme northeastern part of the county, and its population of 470 is predominantly white. Silver Creek, a community about eight miles south of New Hebron, is predominantly black and has a population of about 300.

As shown on the county map attached, Pearl River divides the county from its north-central to southeastern boundaries. In the county, the river is crossed by bridges in two places, one on U.S. Highway 84, the main road through Monticello, and the other on a secondary road north of the town. The population in the southwestern part of the county, which is on the west side of Pearl River, is predominantly white. The population living on the east side of Pearl River, south of New Hebron, is predominantly black, as is the population in the northwest-central part of the county, west of Pearl River.

Nineteen years ago, in 1967, the United States sued the Lawrence County School District, seeking to eliminate state-imposed segregation by race in that county's public schools. The county then had seven schools, five for white students, with white faculty, and two for black students, with black faculty. In 1969, the Supreme Court ordered the Fifth Circuit to take original jurisdiction of this and other Mississippi school desegregation cases and to take immediate steps to desegregate the school systems. 1 This court approved a plan of desegregation proposed by the United States and ordered that it be tested at an evidentiary hearing before District Judge (1) The School Board assign teachers and staff to each school "for the school year 1969-70 and subsequent years" so that "the racial composition of a staff [will not] indicate that a school is intended for Negro or white students" and so that "the ratio of Negro to white teachers in each school, and the ratio of other staff in each, are substantially the same as each such ratio is to the teachers and other staff, respectively, in the entire school system." (Emphasis added.)

                Dan M. Russell, Jr.  After that hearing, and in accordance with Judge Russell's recommendations, this court adopted the proposed plan.  The plan contains provisions similar to those mandated by our opinion in Singleton v. Jackson Municipal Separate School District. 2   It includes requirements that:

(2) "The transportation system be completely reexamined regularly by ... the school board. Bus routes and the assignment of students to buses [are to] be designed to insure the transportation of all eligible pupils in a non-segregated and otherwise non-discriminatory basis."

(3) "All school construction, school consolidation, and site selection ... be done in a manner which will prevent the recurrence of the dual school structure...."

(4) The transfer of students who reside in a district other than the one in which they wish to attend school be permitted only on a "non-discriminatory basis" and the Board is not to "consent to transfers where the cumulative effect will reduce desegregation in [this or a neighboring] district or reinforce the dual school system."

This court's 1969 decree ordered continued operation of the seven schools; two of the schools were to include high school grades as well as elementary grades. The order divided the county into three attendance zones: the northeast zone had one school, the center zone six, and the southwest one. In 1974, after the case had been dormant for almost five years, this court transferred original jurisdiction back to the district court, stating that it appeared the school system "has been and is being maintained as a unitary school system" in compliance with this court's 1969 order. Following the transfer of jurisdiction to the district court, the case remained inactive for a decade.

In 1984, the United States filed a motion to enforce the 1969 order. After a two-day evidentiary hearing, Judge Russell found that the Lawrence County School District had "failed utterly" to comply with that part of the order forbidding the district to permit white students from adjacent counties to attend Lawrence County schools if the effect would be to reduce desegregation. The School District had been permitting white students from Simpson County to attend the predominantly white New Hebron school in Lawrence County. "These transfers," Judge Russell stated, "have the effect of reinforcing the dual school system. The school which was traditionally white, New Hebron, remains so, and in much higher percentages than reflected in the county's population." He went on to find that the public perception of certain schools "has not changed and cannot begin to change until the situation is rectified." Despite the fact that the "Board has been under Court order since 1969 regarding accepting students from other counties," Judge Russell found that the Board had "failed to perform even one solitary act to bring itself into compliance with that order."

Later in 1984, the Lawrence County School Board overcame defeats by voters in 1980 and 1983 by obtaining county voter approval of a $4,000,000 bond issue for the construction and renovation of schools. Some of the planned buildings have been completed or are under construction: a new classroom building at New Hebron (the sole school in the northeast zone); additional Soon after the bond issue was passed, a class of black students and their parents intervened in the suit and filed a complaint charging that the School Board had failed to operate a "unitary, non-racial" system and had violated the 1969 decree with regard to student transportation, teacher hiring and assignment, school construction plans, and the current student attendance plan. They sought a preliminary injunction to stop the expenditure of the bond revenues and the district court halted the construction of these facilities pending the trial. After a hearing, that injunction was vacated by the district court.

classrooms and a new "cafetorium" at Topeka-Tilton (the sole school in the southwest zone); and repairs and renovations at two of the schools in the center zone, McCullough Junior High and Monticello High, as well as at Topeka-Tilton. In addition, the School District plans to build a vocational-technical center at Monticello, in the central zone, to serve students who live throughout the county; a new elementary school in Monticello at a newly acquired site to replace Monticello Elementary, which is now housed in three buildings; and additional classrooms at Beulah Williams, which is also in the central zone, although near the northeastern part of the county. The location of each of these schools is shown on the attached map.

On appeal, this court affirmed the district court's refusal to issue a preliminary injunction. As noted above, our 1974 order had stated that the Lawrence County school system "has been and is being maintained as a unitary school system." This court's unreported 1985 opinion, a copy of which is attached, stated that, from the record, we were unable to discern whether the "unitary school system" reference in our 1974 order "meant that the school district was on the way to discharging its constitutional duties by complying with the court orders or whether at that time it had fulfilled its constitutional duty to disestablish the dual system." We affirmed the district court's denial of an injunction, but took no other action, noting that, in hearing the case on the merits, the district court should address the question of the effect of the 1974 order.

In response to our mandate, and after a hearing, the district court held that our 1974 order returning jurisdiction of the case to the district court had not declared the system to be unitary in the sense of having accomplished...

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