Justice Department visits schools

Published 10:12 pm Thursday, June 4, 2015

U.S. Department of Justice personnel have visited Suffolk this week to “evaluate the (school) district’s implementation of its desegregation obligations,” according to a DOJ spokesman.

The department declined to answer questions seeking more information on the visit, but Suffolk Public Schools offered some additional details.

According to school district spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw, over Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, officials from the department visited Booker T. Washington, Driver and Pioneer elementary schools; Forest Glen and John F. Kennedy middle schools; King’s Fork and Lakeland high schools; and Turlington Woods.

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The visit, she added, was “to assess the district’s compliance with its desegregation obligations and applicable federal law.”

“They sent an attorney representative and one additional member from the U.S. Department of Justice,” according to Bradshaw.

“They also met with school administrators and district personnel to speak about aspects of the district’s operations, policies and procedures. The last time the department visited was about eight years ago.”

About 44 years after a federal judge found the district had discriminated against some black teachers and students, Suffolk Public Schools is the only school system in Virginia on the department’s “Open Desegregation Case List.”

Districts on the list face extra scrutiny by U.S. attorneys regarding decisions and policies impacting racial balances.

At the urging of the Justice Department after it reviewed early attendance zone plans for Pioneer, now in its first year of operation, the School Board introduced a majority-to-minority program under which, this year, black students in the majority-black Booker T. Washington attendance zone could apply to attend majority-white Pioneer, and white students there could apply to attend Booker T. Washington.

The majority-black Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School will join the program starting next school year. In the program’s first year, fewer than 75 black students opted to attend Pioneer instead of Booker T. Washington.

If the projected enrollment for majority-to-minority students at Pioneer in 2016-2017 is still fewer than 75, Elephant’s Fork will automatically be added.

At the DOJ’s urging, the School Board also approved a revision of the original attendance zone plan for Pioneer to include more black students.