Thomas v. School Board St. Martin Parish

Date Filed: 08/17/1965

Thomas v. St. Martin Parish School Board originated in 1965, when LDF challenged the district’s segregated schools. LDF represents the Private Plaintiffs and the DOJ is the Plaintiff-Intervenor. Ten years after Brown v. Board of Education, Black and white students in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana were still educated separately. The District Court found that the school board’s operation violated the constitutional rights of Black students and the case entered a remedial phase. The school board operated under a series of court orders and decrees for the next decade.

Then, in 1974, the district court issued a decree stating that the St. Martin Parish public schools had “operated” as a “unitary school system for a period in excess of three years.” This meant that the court no longer had jurisdiction over the school district. The case remained open but dormant for decades.

St. Martin Parish enrolls about 7,000 students: 50% white and 46% Black. In the City of St. Martinville-area zone, the school board operates two historically Black elementary schools with a 70% Black student body and, in that same zone, the historically-white Catahoula Elementary school. In the 1930s, the school board intentionally organized the zone in this way to segregate Catahoula Elementary’s white students from the nearby Black students. None of the parish’s other three zones still duplicate elementary schools in this manner.

In 2010, LDF and the DOJ argued that the St. Martin School Board had never achieved unitary status since the court had not conducted the inquiry required by the Supreme Court in Dowell v. Board of Education. In 2014, the Fifth Circuit ruled in LDF’s favor, affirming that the district is still under a desegregation order. 

In 2016, a federal district court approved a school desegregation plan to ensure educational equity for St. Martin students. Additional agreements seek to increase high school graduation rates, decrease the use of overly punitive discipline policies, promote diversity amongst teachers and professional staff, and improve school facilities. 

While measures agreed to in 2016 have addressed some issues of racial discrimination, many persist. Before the consent order, for example, Catahoula Elementary was over 90% white. But, in 2016, the court ordered the school board to rezone, which resulted in the now 24% Black student body at Catahoula Elementary, its highest level of integration ever. But the school board has made no progress in desegregating its two neighboring Black schools.

The school board has sought to dismiss the case several times. LDF asked the court to keep the consent decree in place, presenting evidence that schools had not fixed these issues or desegregated schools. LDF asked the court to close Catahoula Elementary to finally desegregate this St. Martinville-area school zone.

In 2021, the Court ordered the school board to continue its desegregation efforts. The decision confirmed that the school board had failed to meet the requirements set in the 2016 consent order. In addition, the court found that the school district failed to ensure equal treatment of Black students and Black teachers and allowed racial bias to affect the operation of St. Martin Parish schools. The court further found that the district did not take steps to close substantial racial disparities in Black students’ attainment of college preparatory diplomas despite an explicit agreement to address this inequity. Because of these findings, the court’s ruling requires the school board to hire and retain more Black teachers, implement new trainings, eliminate racial disparities in student discipline, and increase Black students’ enrollment in college preparatory programs.