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Desegregation in 2016? Judge orders Mississippi town to unify school system

A federal judge has ordered a Mississippi school district to combine two high schools and two middle schools in an effort to desegregate schools in Cleveland, Miss.

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    A group of Cleveland, Miss., public school students ride the bus on their way home following classes. A federal judge on Friday ordered the town of Cleveland to merge high and middle schools in an effort to end decades of segregation.
    Rogelio V. Solis/AP
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It's been 62 years since the US Supreme Court ended legal segregation of schools in America, but in the Mississippi Delta, segregation is finally coming to an end.

After more than 50 years of litigation, a federal judge ruled Friday that the town of Cleveland, Miss., will have to merge the two high schools and two middle school in its district in an attempt to finally end public school segregation in the area.

“The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally guaranteed right of an integrated education," US District Judge Debra Brown wrote in a 96-page opinion. "Although no court order can right these wrongs, it is the duty of the district to ensure that not one more student suffers under this burden."

Following the ruling, the student bodies of East Side High School, which has only one white student, and Cleveland High School, which is mixed, will be merged. Additionally, Margaret Green Junior High (41 percent white, 54 percent black) will merge with D.M. Smith Middle, where all but two students are black.

Two thirds of the 3,700 students in the district are black, 29 percent are white, and the remainder are Asian or Hispanic.

"The court concludes that the continued operation of East Side High and D.M. Smith as single-race schools is a vestige of discrimination and that, therefore, a plan which allows such continued operation must be rejected," the judge wrote.

Merging schools as a means of desegregation was commonplace in the 1960s and 1970s, but, as Gary Orfield, who leads the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles told the Associated Press, the practice “is somewhat uncommon” today.

A federal judge had previously approved an open-enrollment plan aimed at ending segregation organically, but that plan was overturned by a recent Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruling demanding a more thorough examination of the plan. Judge Brown said in her ruling that the district provided only “weak” evidence the open-enrollment plan could fix the problem.

District lawyer Jamie Jacks said the school board would meet Monday to discuss the new ruling and decide whether to appeal the decision.

"The district's plans allowed for student and parent choice," Mr. Jacks wrote in a statement. "If the board appeals, it would request that the existing open enrollment plan continue while the appeal is pending."

In their case, the school district presented expert testimony that merging the schools could prompt an exodus of white students enrolling into private schools. Only four of the 22 other school districts in Mississippi's Delta region have student bodies composed of less than 80 percent African-American students.

For Brown, the risk of losing some white students was far outweighed by the problems of continuing to run segregated schools.

"The district is likely to suffer some white enrollment loss as a result of consolidation," Brown wrote in her ruling. "While this is a concern, it is insufficient, in the absence of an alternative constitutional plan, to reject consolidation. Rather, potential white enrollment loss is a problem that must be met with creativity."

Since 2014, the US Justice Department has been involved in 43 similar cases of segregated schools in Mississippi alone. The 2010-2014 American Community Survey shows that high levels of unofficial segregation are a nationwide problem, with high concentrations of segregation in some of the largest metropolitan areas in the North and Midwest, including Milwaukee, New York, Chicago, and Detroit.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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