Today, a federal district court in Louisiana began hearing witness testimony and evidence in Thomas v. School Board of St. Martin Parish, a school desegregation case. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and co-counsel Gideon Garter of Baton Rouge represent Black students in this class action. While the school board seeks to dismiss the case, LDF asks the court to remedy the present effects of the segregation on students and teachers, end discriminatory discipline practices, and close racial disparities in academic achievement. Following the weeklong hearing, the court will decide whether the school board must continue the desegregation efforts required by a 2016 consent order.
“St. Martin Parish has a long way to go before this case’s dismissal,” said LDF Senior Counsel Deuel Ross. “Today, four of the parish’s nine elementary schools have not been fully desegregated. As a result, a third of all Black elementary students are currently attending racially isolated, predominately Black schools. The school board has not fixed these issues, nor has it taken seriously its constitutional duty to desegregate these schools.”
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.
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 court also ordered the school board to begin a student transfer program, which has allowed dozens of Black students to voluntarily transfer from their home schools to the high-performing Parks Primary and Middle schools. If the court were to dismiss the case, however, the school district has vowed to end this popular and successful transfer program.
Because the school board is not complying with the consent order, the court will consider whether to close Catahoula Elementary and reassign its students to the two nearby, majority-Black schools. Despite Catahoula Elementary school’s declining student population and inferior facilities, the school board has been unwilling to consider this option. The school board claims that every “community” should have its own school, but keeping Catahoula open merely protects a unique white enclave school at the expense of functionally segregating a third of all Black elementary school students in the parish.
Additionally, LDF asks that the school board keep working to eliminate discrimination in discipline, hire more Black teachers, and increase Black students’ graduation rates. In the 2018-2019 school year, for example, the school board’s discriminatory discipline practices led Black students to lose 5,673 days of class versus only 2,407 lost days for white students.
“Despite the consent order’s requirement that the school board reduce disparities in discipline and graduation rates, Black students remain twice as likely to be removed from classes and dropout,” said LDF Senior Counsel Monique Lin-Luse. “The school board must fulfill its promise of ensuring fairness and equal educational opportunities for all children.”
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization. LDF has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF. Follow LDF on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.