A Reflection on the Pitt County Unitary Status Trial

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Plaintiffs and attorneys at the Eastern District Federal Courthouse in Greenville, NC.

After over five years of representing our clients, and an important victory at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012, the Center’s school desegregation case, Everett et al v. Pitt County Board of Education, went to trial in U.S. District Court in Greenville. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Dechert LLP co-counseled on the case.

The trial focused on a motion by the plaintiffs seeking to undue a 2011 student assignment plan that substantially increased racial segregation in the district, as well as the school board’s motion seeking a declaration of “unitary status;” a legal determination that it had fully complied with the court’s desegregation orders and ending further judicial oversight.

During the weeklong hearing, the school board presented testimony from the former superintendent and assistant superintendent, the districts’ HR director, and several principals. The board also called as expert witnesses Professors David Armor and William Clark, who combined have testified over 50 times on behalf of school districts seeking unitary status. Plaintiffs Melissa Grimes, Caroline Sutton and Christopher Taylor each testified. Ozie Hall, President of plaintiff the Pitt County Coalition for Educating Black Children, and former Greenville mayor and school board member Edward Carter also took the stand. Allan Parnell of the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities and Dr. Genevieve Seigel-Hawley from Virginia Commonwealth University provided expert testimony on demographics and school desegregation, respectively. The plaintiffs’ testimony was personal and powerful. Melissa Grimes said “The most important thing was that this trial finally gave us a voice. We have been in this struggle with the school system for so long, but it never seemed like they were really listening to us. Now we know that at last, we’ve been heard.”

How Did We Get Here?

In the early 1970s, as a result of litigation brought by African American parents (represented by civil rights champion and Center of Civil Rights founder Julius Chambers), the then Pitt County and Greenville City school districts were placed under court orders to desegregate. The districts merged into the current Pitt County Schools in 1987. The merged district remained subject to the court’s desegregation orders, although the case was dormant for many years.

Everett was re-opened in 2008 when, as part of the settlement of a discrimination complaint filed U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) by a group of White parents, the school board agreed to return the federal court for clarification of the status and the board’s obligations pursuant to those orders. At that time, the Center, with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights serving as co-counsel, intervened on behalf of several African American parents and the Coalition for Educating Black Children, a community based organization. This stage of the litigation was resolved by a settlement and consent order in November 2009.

In 2010, the school board adopted a student assignment plan that increased or ignored racial isolation in several schools and opened a brand new school, Lakeforest Elementary, as a high-minority, low performing school. In 2011, the plaintiffs filed a motion to stop the reassignment, arguing it would violate the active desegregation order and in fact resegregate students. The district court refused to hold the district to its affirmative duty to complete the integration of its schools and denied the motion. The Center appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and remanded the case to Judge Howard. Following the appellate ruling, the school district moved for unitary status for the first time ever.

The parties must submit proposed findings of facts and conclusions of law by August 25. U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Howard stated that he then expects to issue a final decision within 30 days.

Select media coverage of the trial:

July 18, 2013 N.C. Policy Watch "Fifty years later, segregation battles still in the courts" Web link PDF link
July 22, 2013 The Daily Reflector "Schools in court today; briefs included" Web link PDF link
July 22, 2013 UNC School of Law "UNC Center for Civil Rights Argues Pitt County School Desegregation Case in Federal Court" Web link PDF link
July 23, 2013 The Daily Reflector "Case judges district's equality" Web link PDF link
July 24, 2013 The Daily Reflector "Emory testifies at school trial" Web link PDF link
July 24, 2013 The Daily Reflector "Administrators testify on unitary status" Web link PDF link
July 25, 2013 The Daily Reflector "Former superintendent testifies" Web link PDF link

Posted by Mark Dorosin on Fri. August 2, 2013 4:04 PM
Categories: Education, Pitt County, Race Discrimination, Segregation
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