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Judge lifts most of 19-year-old desegregation ruling on Woodland Hills schools

Thursday, July 27, 2000

By Eleanor Chute, Post-Gazette Education Writer

The Woodland Hills School District desegregation case has lasted longer than the school careers of the students who went to the district when it was formed in 1981 after a 10-year legal battle.


More on the Woodland Hills decision


Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr.'s latest decision on the Woodland Hills case, issued Tuesday, still won't set the school district free, but it significantly reduces court supervision and puts the district in its final lap toward compliance with the court requirements.

Cohill's ruling says the district has met nearly all of the requirements imposed after black parents complained nearly 30 years ago that the state had created a racially segregated school district when it formed the General Braddock School District to serve Braddock, Rankin and North Braddock.

In response 10 years later, U.S. District Judge Gerald Weber, who has since died, ordered the creation of Woodland Hills, which incorporated General Braddock with the predominantly white districts of Churchill Area, Edgewood, Swissvale and Turtle Creek.

It is also nearly a decade since the U.S. Supreme Court, in an Oklahoma City case, made it easier for school districts to abandon forced busing of students once racial desegregation has been achieved.

Woodland Hills is the only school district in the state under federal court control.

After the school district made a motion on Oct. 18, 1999, to end that control, Woodland Hills Superintendent Stanley Herman said the district had dealt with all of the court's complaints.

"Court intervention was never intended to be a long-term solution," he added. "The time has come for this district to regain local control."

The state, which created the racially segregated school district that led to this case and also is a defendant, concurred. "Equal educational opportunities are offered to each student enrolled in the district without regard to race," the state's motion said. "The circumstances on which the court based its desegregation orders have long faded into the past."

But attorneys for the plaintiffs -- originally a group of General Braddock parents and certified as a class-action suit -- disagreed in their motion to Cohill in December.

"The district has yet to fully or effectively implement remedies vital to the primary objective of the school system and to the life opportunities of African-American young people -- educational opportunities, experiences and attainment."

The plaintiffs' attorneys also said, "Without the threat of court intervention, the district would not have been able to make the changes it has made in the past, nor is it likely to be able to make the changes required for the future."

However, Cohill's order contains much praise for Woodland Hills.

"Woodland Hills has been transformed in the past 29 years," he wrote in the order handed down Tuesday, "from a new district created by court order in a climate of much anger and bitterness, to a school district whose motto, appropriately, is 'All Children Can Learn.' "

The roots of the case date to the early 1960s when Pennsylvania municipalities began consolidating their once-independent school districts.

One of the new districts formed in 1971 was General Braddock, which had a concentration of black residents.

On behalf of low-income residents of the new district, Neighborhood Legal Services filed a federal suit in 1971, saying the state had illegally formed one large district with a concentration of black residents.

Weber ruled in 1973 that General Braddock had to be broken up, but it took many more years for him to rule on just how to accomplish that.

On April 28, 1981, he ordered four predominantly white east suburban districts to merge with General Braddock.

The district had an estimated 9,100 students, about 17 percent of them black. This past school year ended with about 5,850 students, 46.2 percent of them black.

The four school districts forced into the merger protested all the way to the altar and beyond, with some dissenters taking their complaints to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case in 1982.

In the fall of 1981, the new district opened with all three of its high schools as well as its middle schools desegregated. Desegregation of its elementary schools didn't come until the following year. Its three high schools ultimately were consolidated into the former Churchill Area High School in 1987.

This was a marriage fought by some board members and residents in the predominantly white districts, who demonstrated, filed petitions and hired attorneys.

After receiving eight appeals, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in March 1983 wrote, "Persistent litigation can tear apart the social fabric of a community and threaten the intercultural understanding that is often fragile even in the best of economic times.

"The court earnestly solicits the interested parties to turn away from further litigation and for the sake of the children and the community strive to make the changes work."

In May 1983, the Woodland Hills school board decided against pursuing any further appeals of Weber's order to desegregate.

There were still plenty of issues for both sides to carry to Weber and to his successor in the case, Cohill who took the case after Weber died in 1989.

There were disputes over which buildings would stay open and which would close and who would go to which schools.

There was still a consent decree on how to operate the district to be worked out. The district and plaintiffs didn't agree until 1988 on a consent decree, which was approved by Weber.

There were repeated trips to court over how much the state owed Woodland Hills for the desegregation costs.

School officials, plaintiffs and their attorneys all have been frustrated through the years, with administrators feeling burdened by court oversight and the complainants seeing too little progress too slowly on educational equity.

For the students, the merger wasn't always smooth, but some gave it positive reviews.

In December 1984, Ed Comer, a white student from East Pittsburgh who was student council president at Turtle Creek High in the new district, said, "It [the merger] has done more good than harm. It has opened my mind, exposed me to more kinds of people, black, white, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic. It's a good thing."

At the same time, Tom Cameron, a black student who had attended Braddock Junior High before the merger and was a member of the first senior class at Turtle Creek High, said, "At the beginning, we did not want to go. We expected trouble on the first day. Both black and white kids came in with an attitude. It was a racial attitude against you. If you were black and from General Braddock, then you were probably stupid. By the second year, it mellowed out."

The plaintiffs' attorneys raised ongoing concerns in the district, saying too many black students were being suspended or otherwise disciplined and that too few black students were included in challenging courses.

The attorneys initially were with Neighborhood Legal Services but in recent times the plaintiffs have been represented by Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C.; a New York law firm, Weil Gotshal & Manges; and local attorney Ed Feinstein.

When a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1991 made it easier for school districts nationwide to abandon forced busing once racial desegregation had been attained, Woodland Hills had not been declared fully desegregated by the court.

But the written opinion of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist showed what could happen after a district is desegregated.

"Dissolving a desegregation decree after the local authorities have operated in compliance with it for a reasonable period of time properly recognizes that necessary concern for the important values of local control of public school systems," he wrote.

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