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Desegregation Order in Mississippi Questioned

(CN) - A desegregation plan that allows each student in Cleveland, Miss., to choose which school to attend needs a better explanation, the 5th Circuit ruled Tuesday.

This case, originally filed in 1965, challenged the de jure segregation in Cleveland.

At that time, black students had to attend schools on the East side of the railroad tracks, while white students attended schools on the West side of town.

In the '60s, the court ordered the Cleveland school district to submit a desegregation plan to dismantle the unequal system, and then supervised the district's efforts for 50 years.

But the U.S. challenged the district's student and faculty assignments as noncompliant with the desegregation plan, in 2011.

A federal judge found that the town's elementary schools, and its formerly all-white middle and high school were desegregated.

Cleveland's formerly all-black middle and high school on the East side of the railroad tracks were never meaningfully desegregated, however, and continued to be 98 percent to 100 percent black, the federal judge ruled.

Rejecting both the U.S. and school district's proposals for desegregating the schools, the court adopted a plan abolishing mandatory attendance zones, defined by the railroad tracks, and implemented a freedom of choice plan that allowed each student to choose to attend any middle or high school in town.

Under the plan, which the U.S. had appealed, not one white student pre-enrolled at the East-side middle or high school.

The 5th Circuit reversed the ruling, finding that the lower court did not adequately explain its reasoning that the racial segregation at the East side schools would be resolved by a freedom of choice plan.

"Given the available statistics showing that not a single white student chose to enroll at D.M. Smith [Middle School] or East Side High after the district court's order, and that historically, over the course of multiple decades, no white student has ever chosen to enroll at D.M. Smith or East Side High, the district court's conclusion that a freedom of choice plan was the most appropriate desegregation remedy at those schools certainly needed to be expressed with sufficient particularity to enable us to review it," Judge James Graves said, writing for the three-judge panel.

The New Orleans-based court explicitly said that the federal judge's plan is not unconstitutional, but it must explain why it found that plan would be more successful than another.

"If the District Court's remedy is premised on a conclusion that, aside from the freedom of choice plan, there is nothing more that the district can or should do to desegregate D.M. Smith and East Side High, that conclusion should be justified," Graves wrote. "If the District Court's order is premised on avoiding 'white flight' that may occur as a result of other proposed remedies such as consolidation, it must grapple with the complexities of that issue."

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