RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ North Carolina civil rights groups want the federal Department of Education, which spends nearly $78 million a year on Wake County schools, to overturn the school board’s decision to end a diversity program.
With the complaint filed Friday, the coalition opposed to changes in the diversity policy takes a major legal step in its campaign to restore busing aimed at achieving socio-economic balance in North Carolina’s largest school system.
“We’ve prayed, we’ve talked, we’ve walked, we’ve tried nonviolent civil disobedience,” the Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, told The Associated Press before a Saturday news conference to announce the complaint. “We have tried every other option.”
The complaint was filed by the NAACP, a Wake County youth group called Heroes Emerge Among Teens and 18-year-old student Quinton White, who was transferred from the high school he had been attending until this year.
Barber said the groups supporting the complaint, including the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the North Carolina Justice Center and others, expect more citizens to endorse the action.
Calls to members of the school board were not immediately returned.
The complaint is based on a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that forbids the use of tax dollars in discriminatory ways.
The complainants seek to prove intentional discrimination on the part of the board, that the new policies backed by the board would disproportionately harm nonwhites and that Wake schools’ discipline policies have been enforced in a discriminatory manner.
That third aspect predates last year’s school board elections, which gave a 5-4 majority to board members who favored ending the decade-old socio-economic diversity program. According to research done by the NAACP, 94 percent of students expelled by Wake schools in the last five years have been black, although blacks make up roughly a quarter of the total student population of more than 140,000.
“The only thing that can explain that is race,” said Al McSurely, a lawyer representing the NAACP.
The five board members who voted to end the policy have argued there are better ways to achieve diversity than through busing, and have said they favor allowing students to attend school closer to home.
The NAACP and its allies say that very language is a loaded echo of the desegregation battles of the 1950s and 1960s.
“Everyone in the South knows what they mean when they say ‘neighborhood schools,”’ McSurely said. “They mean black schools and white schools, not integrated schools.”
Barber said the complainants have amassed a vast amount of evidence to back up their claims, and hopes to bring Wake County residents to meet soon with Department of Education officials in Washington, D.C.
The next step in such complaints usually involves the federal agency asking the responding party _ in this case, the board _ for information, followed by an investigation. Barber said the decision to file the complaint does not rule out the possibility of a state or federal lawsuit.
“This is the first step, and it’s a major step,” he said. “But we’re not going to stop fighting.”