Will Boston Schools Ever Desegregate?

A note on the author Michael Bernick '74 gave a seminar at the Institute of Politics this Fall entitled Racial Integration in the Schools.")

KEVIN McCLUSKEY grew up in Columbia Point in the early sixties when the Point was racially mixed. For six years he attended Dever Elementary School and he knows that white and black children can attend the same school without conflict. Last year while serving as a high school representative on the Boston School Committee Kevin came to know why most schools in Boston remain racially segregated. "The members of the School Committee are, above all interested in their political futures." Kevin explains, and it has been politically expedient in Boston to oppose school integration.

For the past seven years, in fact, the Boston School Committee has been making political hay out of race relations. Through legal manuvering the School Committee has managed to resist integration while politically issuing statements urging the repeal of the Racial Imbalance Act. Yet recent developments in the state court could bring the Committee's long resistance to an end.

The State Superior Court is the site of a suit brought by the State Board of Education against the School Committee over violation of the state Racial Imbalance Act (RIA). In November the state introduced an integration plan which is now under consideration by the court. The plan would rearrange Boston school districts by next September and drastically reduce the number of segregated schools.

The RIA was passed by the Massachusetts legislature in 1965. The act does not recognize Chicanos, Puerto Ricans or Orientals as minorities, but regards every child as either black or white. A school is racially imbalanced and in violation of the law if it is more than 50 per cent non-white; a school that is 100 per cent white is considered racially balanced.

When the act was passed in 1965, Boston had 46 imbalanced schools. Though the School Committee was required by the RIA to submit plans to correct the imbalance, it responded with token programs. Today Boston has 65 imbalanced schools and half its 200-odd schools are either 90 per cent white or 90 per cent black. Out of frustration parents in the black community organized two voluntary small-scale programs to bus children to empty seats in nearby white schools.

IN 1971 the $8 million Joseph Lee Elementary School--complete with a community pool and drama center--opened in Roxbury. In order to receive state construction aid, a school must be in compliance with the RIA when it opens. The Boston School Committee promised the state that the Lee school would be balanced. However, in the face of protests by white parents whose children were redistricted into the school, the Committee backed down and the school opened with 1035 blacks and 224 whites.

After six years trying to coerce the School Committee into integrating the schools, the state was fed up. This broken promise was the last straw. The state froze $52 million in state funds to the Boston Schools. The School Committee sued to release the money and the state filed a countersuit charging Boston with not complying with the RIA.

The trial was held in late August. On September 27 Superior Court Judge Robert Sullivan set down his ruling. He released the $52 million but at the same time called for a plan that would racially balance the entire district by September 1973.

"One white mother whose son had been beaten up twice in the school restroom said, 'Integration has made my son a racial bigot.'"

The School Committee responded on November 6 by submitting a "non-plan," a proposal which contained nothing significantly different from its past plans. Three days later the Board predictably rejected it and submitted its own plan on November 16.

The Massachusetts State Guidelines for school integration were set down by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in the 1971 Springfield Case. The Court ruled that no student may be bused out of his school district without his parent's consent. The court noted: "It would be possible to nullify the restriction simply by establishing gerrymandered or excessively large districts."

Thus, it concluded that a school committee may redraw districts, including several neighborhoods and more than one school within one district, but that it must not draw districts that are large and gerrymandered. It did not specify the maximum size of a district, but suggested that the state draw up criteria. Shortly afterward, the state set down 3 1/2 miles as the maximum distance any high school student (9-12 grades) could travel, three miles for intermediate (grades 6-8) students, and two miles for elementary (kindergarten-fifth grade) students.

The state plan seemingly meets these standards. It redistricts the Boston schools into 30 elementary and seven intermediate districts, based on the state district size standards. However, two elementary districts presently exceed the standards. Each of the districts is racially balanced except for seven elementary districts in the middle of Roxbury. These, due to their location, could not be mixed with predominantly white schools.

No student is to be bused outside his district. The city, however, has a law providing for free transportation for any student who lives further than one mile from his school. Therefore, under the plan, some students have the opportunity, but no student will be required to be bused.

THE PLAN IS NOT without its problems. As mentioned, seven school districts in Roxbury remain imbalanced and two other districts exceed state guidelines in distance. In addition, members of the black community have objected that black children will bear the brunt of the traveling. Still, out of the 15,000 non-white students at this time attending imbalanced schools, the plan would leave only 2300, and this would be achieved without large-scale, time-consuming busing.

Moreover, a successful integration program requires certain advance planning and sensitivity on the part of school officials. Repeatedly, when such planning has been absent, the result has been a heightening of hostility between the races. Blacks come to feel that they are not welcomed at the school, and whites resent the increased physical violence that frequently occurs. In many cases students are afraid to use the restrooms. One white mother whose son had been beaten up twice in the restroom explained: "Integration has made my son a racial bigot."

The state plan recognizes the need to bring the two communities together and counsel school officials. Among other things, it calls for the appointment in each district of an education planning committee of teachers and administrators to deal with curriculum changes; a bi-racial advisory committee in each district composed of students, parents, and teachers to deal with subjects of safety, transportation and human relations: and workshops for school officials and non-professionals to help them understand the plan.

The School Committee voted unanimously in November to oppose the plan. School committeeman Paul Ellison commented: "I would go to jail before I would let a single child be bused without parental consent," even though the plan, as mentioned, does not call for forced busing. "The people will not accept this," stated ex-Committee Committee chairman James Hennigan. "The only solution I can see is the repeal of the Racial Imbalance Law and to start all over again."

Still, on November 20 when he appeared at a seminar at Harvard, Greg Anrig, head of the state task force that prepared the plan and the recently appointed state Commissioner of Education, seemed confident that the plan would be approved. During the Court hearings Judge Sullivan seemed sympathetic to the state and interested in the details of the plan and intensely questioned Anrig and task force member Jack Finger.

On December 18 Sullivan handed down his decision rejecting the plan. He failed to explain the specific reasons for his rejection but made a number of comments on the plan: The districts were too "large and gerrymandered" and required excessive busing: it was not sufficiently proven that the safety of school children had been provided for; public hearings on the proposed changes in districts were not held: and the plan contained a number of "considerations which do not relate to racial balance" [referring to the implementation strategies].

The first comment is hard to understand since the districts comply with the standards set by the state. The other three comments were described by another lawyer as "nit-picking" and another as "irrelevancies."

The off-the-record explanation for the decision, given by a number of the participants in the case, was courtroom politics. The Boston School Committee had appealed the August decision to the Supreme Judicial Court and the appeal was heard at the same time as the hearings on the state plan.

During the appeal, the SJC made remarks which seemed to criticize Sullivan for getting too involved in the specifics of the racial balance plan. (In the Springfield case the SJC had ruled that "although we will pass on questions of law related to the interpretation and enforcement of the statute (RIA), it is not appropriate for us to enter directly into the form of the racial balance plans.") Sullivan, feeling he was being undercut, decided to throw the decision to the SJC.

On December 28, in a surprise Christmas week sitting, the SJC agreed to review Sullivan's decision beginning February 8, If the SJC overturns Sullivan's decision, the assignment of children to specific schools within the districts will begin immediately and take effect in September.

MEANWHILE, the School Committee and State Board are codefendants in a case to begin in the Federal court on January 22. The case offers the possibility of the integrating of Boston city schools with suburban schools. Black parents have charged the School Committee and State Board with failing to provide equal educational opportunities for black children, in violation of the 14th Amendment. Specific accusations include racial discrimination in the assignment recruitment and promotion of teachers, unequal spending in the schools, and the incorporation of segregated neighborhoods in school attendance zones. The plaintiffs have indicated that if they win, they will seek a plan to link Boston to the suburbs. Even if he does not go this far. Federal Court Judge Arthur Garrity could order out-of-district busing that is barred under state law.

Garrity's ruling will be strongly influenced by the upcoming rulings of the Supreme Court. The Court is expected to rule soon on the Denver Case, in which the city was ordered to integrate the entire system. In addition, the Appeals Court in Detroit, Michigan recently upheld federal court Judge Roth's decision to bus children between Detroit and 53 suburban cities and town. The decision was in direct conflict with a ruling in another appeals court which reversed a city-suburb plan for Richmond, Va. The Supreme Court will take up the issue in the near future.

Kevin McCluskey moved from Columbia Point to Dorchester and from Dever Elementary Harvard. Though the community in which he now lives has opposed school integration in the past, he believes that it would accept it if those authority were solidly behind it. "It's too bad that the whole thing is in the hands of politicians.