Mills Nearly Denied Unitary Status on Basis of Caledonia Mascot
After 40 years of struggle, the Lowndes County School District has finally achieved unitary status.
In an October 24 ruling, Federal Judge Michael Mills declared that the LCSD has “eliminated all vestiges of de jure discrimination to the extent practicable, has complied with the Court’s desegregation plan and orders for a reasonable period of time, and has demonstrated its good faith commitment to constitutional rights….”
The ruling was not entirely rosy: Mills also expressed concern at both Caledonia High School’s continued use of a Confederate mascot and the Lowndes County School Board’s choice of meeting time, but ultimately felt neither was sufficient grounds for denial.
The 1970 Consent
Orders, and Further Lawsuits
The original desegregation action originated over 40 years ago, with the Department of Justice alleging that many school districts in Mississippi maintained a racially dual system. In a September 5, 1970, order, the court permanently enjoined the district from discriminating on the basis of color, and established provisions governing student assignment, faculty and staff, transportation, school construction and site selection, and extracurricular activities, and mandating the creation of a bi-racial committee.
Since that original 1970 order, the court has entered into a succession of other consent decrees with the district. On February 15, 1989, a decree provided for the construction of a new West Lowndes Elementary School and educational enhancements to programs offered at West Lowndes schools. On June 23, 2001, the court ordered the district to construct a new football facility with practice field and a new baseball facility at West Lowndes High School, as well as replacement of the above-ground sewerage lagoon at West Lowndes Middle School with an underground system.
In 2002 and 2003 private plaintiffs brought two lawsuits against the district: Gray v Lowndes County School District and Shinn v Lowndes County School District. The district, the court and the private plaintiffs agreed to a January 3, 2006, consent order in which the court found that the district was partially unitary.
The US Supreme Court has found six areas of school operation that much be considered when determining if discrimination has been eliminated: student assignment, faculty, staff, transportation, facilities and extracurricular activities. In that 2006 decree, the court found the district was lacking only in facilities and extracurricular activities.
On August 21, 2008, the district moved for unitary status, but the Department of Justice opposed, citing four factors: the WLHS baseball field was not comparable to fields at the other two high schools due to drainage issues; the WLHS entryway did not function properly; there was a lack of advanced instruction policies at WLMS and WLHS; and community complaints about racial harassment and discrimination at the district’s two majority white schools. A February 3, 2009, consent order mandated the district address these issues.
Unitary Status Achieved
On May 15 the LCSD again filed a motion for unitary status. While the Department of Justice did not object, the private plaintiffs did. A Fairness Hearing was set for July 31, and former Superintendent Mike Halford and Assistant Superintendent Peggy Rogers both testified on the district’s behalf. According to Mills’s ruling, “…while twenty-five individuals wrote letters opposing the District’s motion for various reasons or only stating a general objection, no private citizens actually appeared to voice their concerns at the hearing.”
In Mills’s decision he writes that the WLHS baseball field “…is comparable to or in better condition than the fields at Caledonia High School and New Hope High School.” The entryway at WLHS was fixed and no longer leaks, he said, and concerns about parking spaces the private plaintiffs raised at the hearing were unfounded. “Subsequent to the hearing, in order to address this concern, the District provided to counsel for the Private Plaintiffs an affidavit of Greg Wheat, Maintenance Supervisor for the District, that WLHS has a total of 218 marked parking spaces and 7 handicapped spaces at the facility, more than was required by the 2006 Consent Order.”
Mills found that all students, regardless of race, participate in extracurricular activities.
“Halford testified that at Caledonia High School, where the majority of the students are white, the student body elected two black students Mr. and Miss Caledonia High School in 2010. He also testified that the Caledonia student body elected both a black homecoming queen and a black prom king,” Mills wrote.
Mills also stated that Advanced Placement courses are available at WLHS, and appropriate professional development was provided.
“…the number of students at West Lowndes who were involved in AP courses increased from 5 students to 82 students over a four year period during the program’s implementation,” Mills wrote. “For their part, the Private Plaintiffs note that Assistant Superintendent Peggy Rogers testified that the number of students at West Lowndes passing their AP examination has been “very low,” and they accordingly contend that the District has failed to establish that it has fully implemented effective AP classes at West Lowndes High School.”
In his decision, Mills writes that private plaintiffs questioned Halford during the fairness hearing about the time the LCSD board meets.
“Pursuant to Board policy, the regular time for meetings is 11 a.m. on the second Friday of each month, with any special called meetings held at 5 p.m. or 5:30. Board member [Jacqueline Gray] complained about the meeting time…The court concludes that, while it is certainly arguable that the District should choose a more convenient time to hold its school board meeting, this issue does not constitute a basis for denying unitary status in this case,” Mills wrote.
Mills had harsh words for Caledonia High School’s choice of mascot and habit of playing “Dixie” at football games.
From the ruling: “Of all the issues raised in the motion for declaration of unitary status, the one which concerns the court the most is the continued use of the ‘Confederates’ nickname at Caledonia High School. Simply stated, the court can discern no good reason why a Mississippi public school would wish to associate itself with any divisive nickname or symbol. At the hearing, Halford recalled that ‘Confederates’ had been the school’s nickname since at least 1992, and he conceded that the Caledonia student band plays a version of the song ‘Dixie’ when its team scores a touchdown at football games. Halford appeared to recognize that such a nickname can hinder the school’s mission of educating students of all races. At the hearing, Halford sought to emphasize the limited nature of the school’s association with the name, testifying that the Caledonia team uniforms now use the words ‘Caledonia,’ ‘CMS,’ or ‘CHS,’ instead of ‘Confederates’ except for the limited use of the word ‘Fed’ on baseball uniforms.
“This court seriously considered denying a declaration of unitary status based upon this issue, before ultimately deciding not to do so. After viewing the evidence at the hearing, it is the court’s impression that inertia and an unwillingness to address a controversial issue have more to do with the continued use of the ‘Confederates’ nickname at CHS than any official resistance to a unitary system. It is apparent that there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue, and, in such a situation, simple inaction is often the political path of least resistance. It was the court’s impression that Halford’s ‘heart was in the right place’ on this issue. In his testimony, Halford emphasized how the school did not replace a painting of a Confederate soldier on the wall in Caledonia High School’s gymnasium after it was destroyed by a tornado, but it strikes this court that men and women of good conscience should be able to summon the resolve to do the right thing without relying upon acts of God or the federal court to do so.
“This court would have been more inclined to deny unitary status if the Private Plaintiffs had made a stronger showing at the hearing, but, to reiterate, no resident actually showed up to testify on this (or any other) issue.”0