U.S. looking at complaints on schools Civil rights officials to mediate allegations of racism in districts

'It's a big to-do'

Parents accuse board of resegregating students in county

December 19, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Federal civil rights authorities are taking seriously complaints that Anne Arundel County school officials are moving to resegregate the system by shaping attendance areas in ways that concentrate minorities in a few schools.

Five people have complained to federal authorities, and the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) will mediate two complaints of racism that focus on redistricting, according to documents obtained by The Sun under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Parents in two communities in western Anne Arundel County contend that the school board has tried to shoehorn neighborhoods with large numbers of nonwhite students into the Meade Senior High School feeder system, which is about 50 percent minority.

The federal department's decision to step into the matter of whether the racially mixed Severn Elementary School should become part of Meade or stay in the mostly white Old Mill Senior High School feeder system is a victory for Severn parents, said their attorney, Richard I. Kovelant.

"It's a big to-do," he said. "The fact that there is an interest expressed by OCR in this matter seems to suggest that we can get somewhere."

Severn Elementary's population is 48 percent minority.

But Rodger Murphey, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, warned against reading too much into the office's decision.

"We have made no determinations at this point. We have not found the schools to be in or out of compliance [with federal law]," he said.

No investigation has been done; but if mediation fails, a probe could be the next step. No date for mediation has been set.

However, the school board's own actions could blunt mediation, given that the board's most recent proposal for school attendance areas would keep Severn Elementary in the Old Mill system.

"I think there is much to be played out before this thing moves into the arena of OCR," said Darren Burns, school system attorney.

School officials have long denied there was a racial motive behind redistricting. They cited a need to relieve school crowding in several sections of the county and a preference for neighborhood schools.

Opponents have ridiculed the latter as a euphemism for resegregation.

The federal office also expects to mediate allegations that an advisory panel to the board was told that it need not consider racial balance when it was redrawing attendance boundaries in 1995.

In 1995, the board approved moving Severn Elementary into Meade, as well as shifting students who live in the racially mixed Seven Oaks community out of the largely white Arundel Senior High School feeder system and into Meade. Neither move has occurred.

The Office for Civil Rights refused, however, to touch a complaint by Seven Oaks parents that also was based on the 1995 advisory committee's failure to consider the racial implications because that issue is being litigated.

An administrative law judge advocated overturning the entire 1995 plan, but the state board took the more conservative view that only the Seven Oaks part should be thrown out. The Arundel board appealed that decision and Arundel Circuit Judge Pamela L. North heard arguments last month on whether the local school board has a right to challenge the state school board's decision. North is expected to rule next month.

Seven Oaks residents, however, said the failure to win a federal forum was not a loss.

"The issues we have made in connection with the Seven Oaks case -- location of the high-minority schools, what appeared to be the decision-making related to redistricting, that it was OK to move the high-minority schools into the high-minority feeder system -- were general and include Seven Oaks," said David C. Douglas, a Seven Oaks parent and the group's attorney.

The school board's sympathies last spring for another set of parents outraged many West County parents.

White parents in the northern tier of Edgewater wanted their communities removed from the overwhelmingly black Annapolis schools and sent instead to predominantly white Edgewater schools.

The parents did not mention race, but said that from religious worship to shopping to Scouting, they were part of the Edgewater community, not Annapolis.

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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