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The Power of Now
On July 12, 2012, the United States District Court of the Western District of Louisiana ruled in favor of LDF’s clients in Thomas v. St. Martin Parish School Board, denying the school board’s motions to dismiss this long-standing Louisiana school desegregation case.
The ruling came after the St. Martin Parish School Board offered an unorthodox interpretation of prior court rulings and contended that the Court no longer had jurisdiction over the case. LDF, joined by co-counsel Gideon Carter of Baton Rouge, LA, and attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice, vigorously challenged the Board’s contention, which ignored a consistent line of precedent in federal courts throughout the country.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 1965 and quickly entered a remedial phase when the court determined that the School Board violated the constitutional rights of African-American students by operating a racially segregated system of public education.
Since then, the school district has been subject to court orders governing student attendance zones, student transfer policies, desegregating faculty and other staff, facilities and other areas. The court’s continued jurisdiction over the case is based upon the school board’s failure to demonstrate that it has eliminated the “vestiges” of the former segregated school system in school district operations. As the dispute regarding the Court’s jurisdiction continued over a period of over two years, LDF uncovered disturbing evidence of ongoing racial disparities in the school district, including some disturbing patterns regarding disparities in school discipline. African-American students received a disproportionate share of referrals, and some were even referred to law enforcement. These patterns have persisted despite research which demonstrates that these types of trends in student discipline undermine academic achievement and fuel what has become known as the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
LDF attorney Leticia Smith-Evans presented oral argument for the African-American plaintiffs on April 19, 2012. In the Court’s recent Order, District Court Judge Elizabeth E. Foote accepted several of the arguments raised by LDF in its briefs and during oral argument. The Court also relied on precedent from the United States Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in determining that the Court was not divested of jurisdiction over the matter. After examining the record in the case, the Court’s opinion outlined the proper standard for dissolving a school desegregation decree, including examination of the Board’s compliance with the desegregation decree since it was entered and whether the vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated.
This is a critical ruling that comes amidst heightened community concerns about school district operations that negatively impact students of color. LDF intends to address and the school discipline disparities and other issues in the school district during the next phase of the litigation.
The ruling is also important for other school desegregation cases in Louisiana and elsewhere. LDF still litigates over 100 school desegregation cases nationwide, several of them in other Louisiana school districts. By requiring school districts to adhere to desegregation mandates before being released from federal court supervision, LDF continues to work on the frontlines to advance equal educational opportunities for all students.