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Far-reaching suit filed for area desegregation

DATE OF EVENT: Thursday, May 26, 1977

DATE PUBLISHED: Friday, May 27, 1977

Editor’s note: The Kansas City School District sued 18 Missouri and Kansas school districts in 1977, launching what would be years of litigation surrounding school desegregation.

Through a series of legal maneuvers, the suburban schools were dismissed from the original lawsuit and the Kansas City School District became the defendant.

So began more than 25 years of attempts to integrate and improve the school district. Magnet schools, renovations, busing, a tax increase and more than $2 billion in expenditures would all be undertaken before the district would be released from court control in 2003.

Foreshadowing years of litigation over the issue of metropolitan desegregation, the Kansas City School District filed suit yesterday against 18 Missouri and Kansas school systems, the two state governments and three federal departments.

Instead of seeking the consolidation of the area school systems, the suit asks Judge John W. Oliver of U.S. District Court to order the reassignment of students between the Kansas City School District and the other districts.

“Areawide unlawful segregation caused the racial isolation of plaintiff district and only areawide desegregation can undo the effects of those practices,” alleges the suit, which challenges a range of housing, employment and state education policies.

Without a metropolitan solution to a metropolitan problem, equal protection of the laws cannot be afforded students in the Kansas City School District, the suit states.

The suit could provide important legal precedents in the evolving area of metropolitan desegregation law.

It is the first metropolitan desegregation suit attempting to cross a state line and is the first time a school district has filed as a plaintiff in a metropolitan desegregation case. …

James Borthwick, who is leading a team of district attorneys and consultants, acknowledged yesterday that the suit could take several years to resolve.

The school board first authorized the suit two years ago when it set out a comprehensive desegregation strategy that included a minimal interim desegregation plan within the district boundaries coupled with the metropolitan lawsuit. …

The suit was brought against five Kansas and 13 Missouri school systems, which were announced earlier. The systems represent 90 per cent of the Kansas City area population.

The Kansas districts are Shawnee Mission; Kansas City, Kansas; Olathe, and Turner and Stanley in southeast Johnson County. The Missouri districts are Belton, Blue Springs, Center, Grandview, Hickman Mills, Lee’s Summit, Liberty, Independence, Ft. Osage, North Kansas City, Park Hill, Raytown and Raymore-Peculiar. …

The suit goes no further in recommending the specifics of metropolitan desegregation other than asking for the reassignment of students across district lines.

Such reassignments not only would eliminate the vestiges of illegally segregated schools, the district argues, but would be opportunities to improve education offerings and to increase parental involvement.

Transportation systems, the area’s geography and existing examples of intergovernmental co-operation provide an opportunity for student interaction “with the least possible disruption of existing school structures,” the suit stated.

In outlining the alleged constitutional violation, the distract said that before the 1954 U. S. Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation, the states of Missouri and Kansas required segregation in many important aspects of metropolitan life.

“State action sanctioned and at times required racial segregation in such areas as housing, employment, recreation, transportation and public education,” the suit charged.

Narrowing down to education, the district charged that the local school systems were the states’ tools “for making segregation a reality within and between school districts.”

“In some instances, students were permitted or required to cross school district and state lines to enforce school and district segregation,” the suit charged.

As a result, minority race persons are concentrated within the Kansas City and Kansas City, Kansas, school systems, but not in other districts.

The Kansas City School District currently enrolls two-thirds minority race students and the Kansas City, Kansas, system enrolls 40 per cent minority race students. All of the 19 districts combined (the 18 in the suit and the Kansas City system) enroll less than 20 percent minority students.

While the Kansas City district operates a legally desegregated system, the suit charged, a state system that continues the pre-1954 segregation of students still exists in the metropolitan area.

Kansas City students, consequently, are required to attend school in a racially isolated system of public education in the metropolitan area. Those schools, the suit alleged, are labeled with a “badge of inferiority” that deprives the students of equal protection of the laws.