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Court to Review Desegregation in Oklahoma City Schools

March 26, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today agreed to review a ruling that, if upheld, could reinstate forced busing for the racial desegregation of Oklahoma City, Okla., elementary schools.

The court must decide whether the city school board acted lawfully when in 1985 it returned to a neighborhood schools plan for children in kindergarten through fourth grade.

At issue is the effect of a federal judge’s ruling in 1977 that Oklahoma City’s public schools had become fully integrated and no longer had to be under court supervision.

The issue gained national attention when the Reagan administration helped bring about a halt to court-ordered busing of elementary school pupils in Norfolk, Va.

The Norfolk school district was allowed to return to a neighborhood schools plan in 1986.

William Bradford Reynolds, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division when it entered the Norfolk case in 1984, said the same legal principles could apply to ″many, many other school districts around the country.″

Hundreds of school districts, including those in most major cities, operate court-ordered busing plans for racial desegregation. But only a few have persuaded courts, as did those in Norfolk and Oklahoma City, to declare their once-segregated systems fully integrated.

In the Oklahoma City case, a federal appeals court last Oct. 6 disapproved the neighborhood schools plan.

Oklahoma City public schools once were racially segregated by law. Black parents sued in 1961 to end the lasting effects of such segregation, and in 1972 forced busing was begun as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan.

U.S. District Judge Luther Bohanon ruled in 1977 that the school district had become fully integrated, and ended court supervision.

School officials continued the crosstown busing, however, until 1985 when children in kindergarten through fourth grade were allowed to attend the school nearest their home.

By 1986, 33 of the school district’s 64 elementary schools were 90 percent black or white.

Some black parents challenged the neighborhood schools plan, calling it a tool of ″resegregation.″ Other black parents had criticized the busing program.

Judge Bohanon refused to reopen the case, ruling that school officials did not intend to discriminate on the basis of race when they adopted the neighborhood plan.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ordered Bohanon to give the challengers a chance to prove that adopting the neighborhood plan was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court in late 1986 refused to disturb the appeals court’s ruling.

After conducting a trial, Bohanon ruled that the 1972 desegregation plan no longer had to be enforced because federal court supervision ended with his 1977 declaration that the school district was fully integrated.

But the 10th Circuit court’s October ruling said federal court supervision in such cases ″extends beyond the termination of the wrongdoing.″

The appeals court said the Oklahoma City school board has a continuing duty to refrain from any action that could weaken racial balance in the public schools. It ordered Bohanon to study ″alternatives to maintain racially balanced elementary schools.″

In the appeal acted on today, school board lawyer Ronald L. Day said the 10th Circuit court’s ruling directly conflicts with federal appeals court rulings in the Norfolk case and one from Austin, Texas.

In each of those, the appeals courts ruled that court supervision ends when a previously segregated school district is found to be fully integrated, or ″unitary.″

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the National School Boards Association urged the justices to use the Oklahoma City case ″to resolve what constitutes a unitary school system and determine the effect of a declaration of unitary.″

The case is Oklahoma City Board of Education vs. Dowell, 89-1080.

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