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Sides in Little Rock school case say they have reached deal; tell judge to dismiss racial-bias lawsuit

Dismissal of racial-bias suit requested by Cynthia Howell | September 9, 2017 at 4:28 a.m.

Just days before trial, attorneys for the Little Rock School District, the state and a small group of black families jointly asked a federal judge Friday to dismiss a lawsuit that alleged inequitable school district buildings and academic programs.

Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, a civil-rights attorney, and Assistant Attorney General Patrick Hollingsworth told U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. at the end of a conference in another case that the parties in the 2-year-old, highly publicized "Doe" case had reached a settlement, making the trial scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday unnecessary.

In the settlement, the Little Rock district agrees to pay $100,000 for attorney fees and costs to the plaintiff black families, reconfigure high school attendance zones by 2020, widely promote Advanced Placement and gifted education programs, improve furnishings and fixtures at specified schools, document school-based student arrests and allow the plaintiff students to enroll at their preferred campuses.

In return, the district and state receive assurances in the settlement that there will be no additional lawsuits on matters raised or could have been raised in the suit being settled.

[DOCUMENT: Read the full settlement]

The settlement of the race-bias case comes on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High by nine black students in 1957. The anniversary will be marked with concerts, panel discussions, exhibits and a culminating program that will include remarks from former President Bill Clinton at Central on Sept. 25.

The families settling the lawsuit Friday were among a larger group of plaintiffs, including two former Little Rock School Board members, who challenged both the Jan. 28, 2015, state takeover of the school district and what they said were racially disparate school building and academic services in the capital city's school system.

The case has been referred to as the Doe case because some of the parent and student plaintiffs initially used the name of Doe instead of their real names.

Last year, Marshall dismissed the legal challenge to the state takeover that had resulted in the dismissal of the district's elected School Board, including Doe-case plaintiffs Jim Ross and Joy Springer.

The state takeover occurred because six of the district's 48 schools were state-labeled as academically distressed because of chronically low student achievement on state-required tests. The number of schools in distress has since been reduced to three.

The remaining issues in the case that was headed for trial next week centered on allegations of racial discrimination in regard to the condition of campus buildings and in academic program offerings, school attendance zones, school staffing and discipline practices.

The Doe attorneys had argued that the district "had allocated high quality educational programs and top-end facilities to disproportionately white student populations in an effort to privilege, recruit and retain white students."

Walker and representatives of the defendants -- Superintendent Mike Poore and Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key -- declined to comment on the settlement terms late Friday afternoon.

The settlement -- provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette by the state in response to a Freedom of Information Act request -- commits the Little Rock district to "explore and implement ways to increase access to and information about" Advanced Placement classes, gifted education programs and the Forest Heights STEM Academy, which serves kindergarten through eighth grades. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

The district's new southwest Little Rock high school, which will replace McClellan and Fair high schools when it opens in 2020 on Mabelvale Pike, will offer a variety of career-technical education courses as well as pre-Advanced Placement and Advanced Placement courses "that will be greatly expanded from current offerings at Fair and McClellan," the settlement states.

Related to the new school is a commitment that the district will put a moratorium on new construction projects, including school expansions, until the southwest high school is completed and Cloverdale Middle School is replaced. The settlement states that planning is underway to identify the construction that will be necessary at the McClellan High site on Geyer Springs Road to convert it to a high-quality replacement campus for Cloverdale.

The settlement also commits the district "to form new high school attendance zones, based on a written, race-neutral rationale" by the fall of 2020.

Several of the terms of the settlement deal with building fixes, particularly at Cloverdale, Henderson and McClellan schools. The district commits to repair air-conditioning window units at Cloverdale Middle by the fall of 2018 and provide storage space for student books and backpacks.

The district will replace inadequate lighting and ceiling tiles at Cloverdale, Henderson Middle and McClellan, change out doors and handrails at Henderson, and replace torn insulation and remove graffiti at McClellan. The need for furnishings at the three schools will also be evaluated by a team of school and district personnel.

Furthermore, the district commits to ensuring that no functioning school bathroom in the district will go without working soap dispensers and soap for more than 24 hours.

The district will document incidents that involve school resource officers -- who are Little Rock police officers -- or school security officers resulting in the arrests of students on school property.

"LRSD will also prepare annually a report which shows the racial and gender demographics by school of students arrested in such incidents," the agreement says.

The settlement specifies that plaintiff students will be allowed to attend particular schools, be they the new Pinnacle View Middle School, Forest Heights STEM Academy, Parkview Magnet High or Central High.

The current plaintiffs are Latasha Covington; Auxzavian Love; Amoryea Love; Sonya Lampkin; Jaylen Lampkin; Ida Pettus; Lazareous Pettus; Christy Winfrey; Chase Winfrey; and Christian Winfrey.

Besides Walker, the plaintiffs were represented by Robert Pressman of Lexington, Mass., as well as Shawn Childs and Austin Porter.

Earlier this year, the plaintiffs had asked for a court order that would put the brakes on Pinnacle View Middle School -- which is open now to sixth- and seventh-graders and will be expanded to eighth grade in 2018-19. The plaintiffs also sought a court-approved "constitutionally adequate facilities plan for the LRSD," and a stop to "unconstitutional policies and practices" in other areas of the district's operation, including the school attendance zones.

"This relief will ensure Plaintiffs have just as much of a chance to succeed academically as their white counterparts," the Doe attorneys told Marshall in a recent court filing.

The settlement agreement states that the defendants admit no wrongdoing and that the plaintiffs "understand and agree that, by execution of this Agreement, Plaintiffs intend to release, and do release, any and all claims whatsoever that plaintiffs now have or that may accrue in the future on account of or in any way growing out of any claims which were or could have been raised in the Suit."

Poore, the superintendent, has been defended in the lawsuit by Chris Heller and Khayyam Eddings of the Friday, Eldredge & Clark law firm, which represented the district in an earlier federal school desegregation lawsuit.

Key was represented by staff in the Arkansas attorney general's office.

Metro on 09/09/2017

Print Headline: Sides in LR school case tell judge deal reached


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