The mother of a Creed student said she’ll add her name to a civil rights lawsuit that could challenge the closure of her son’s high school — and dismantle the state’s desegregation-driven magnet program.
Lawyers preparing the suit have been sniffing around Connecticut’s regional magnet schools, which are open to suburban students, to find plaintiffs who can reverse Connecticut’s primary initiative to racially desegregate schools.
The attorneys, from the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a California-based firm that strategically litigates cases to reduce the size of government, already found seven Hartford families willing to take the state’s educational commissioner to court. And at the soon-to-be-shuttered Cortlandt V.R. Creed Health & Sports Science High School, they appear to have found another client.
Creed parent Catherine Lawson contacted PLF, tried unsuccessfully to get more more families to join her and eventually decided to go it alone as the plaintiff herself. The case, which has not been filed yet, will likely argue that the inter-district magnet program violates students’ Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.
In February, Oliver Dunford, a PLF attorney, made similar arguments in a federal court filing seeking to overturn racial benchmarks and the choice lottery in the Hartford region.
Those policies are at the crux of a decades-long desegregation effort in Connecticut that resulted from Sheff v. O’Neill, the landmark case that found racial isolation in public schools violates students’ rights to a substantially equally educational opportunity. After Connecticut’s Supreme Court justices ordered the desegregation of Hartford area schools in 1996, the state started funding more inter-district magnet schools, which receive more state funds per pupil than their traditional counterparts. The idea is that their expanded offerings will entice white suburbanites to sit alongside black and brown city kids.
PLF’s lawsuit is based on reporting by the Courant that proved magnet schools were leaving desks unfilled rather than accepting wait-listed minorities to hit their integration targets. In a twist on Sheff’s original grievance, PLF’s lawyers now say students are being treated differently because of their race.
Dunford said he has no intention of taking down Sheff; he just disagrees with how the legislature responded to the court order. “The problem is the remedy in this case,” he said in a phone interview. “All we want is a color-blind Constitution.”
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Children’s Advocacy all responded earlier this month by filing a motion to intervene on behalf of the original Sheff plaintiffs, who say the state’s progress toward integration, however imperfect, should not be undone.
The litigation could open up a larger battleground about the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment. Originally added after the Civil War to ensure that black men became full citizens, the amendment justified race-conscious laws, such as the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau that helped former slaves get housing and schooling.
But some conservative jurists today question whether that original intent still applies, saying any law that treats races differently should be subject to “strict scrutiny.”
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 2007 case that struck down Seattle and Louisville’s school desegregation programs. (Justice Anthony Kennedy forced the court to rule on the limited grounds that the programs weren’t “narrowly tailored.”)
Liberal jurists say that the Fourteenth Amendment recognizes a fundamental difference between the laws that keep races apart and the ones that bring them together. If a school board could prove a “rational basis” for desegregation, they argue its program should stand.
Creed parents and teachers were open to meeting with PLF until they found out about the organization’s attempts to undo school desegregation plans across the country, including cases in Chicago; Los Angles and Berkeley, Calif.; and St. Louis, Mo.
Founded by former advisors to California Gov. Ronald Reagan and supported by conservative donors, Pacific Legal Foundation seeks to roll back environmental regulations, eminent domain and affirmative action. Its lawyers have made it to the Supreme Court 15 times.
Lawson, a ticked-off mom whose biracial son is headed into his junior year, first reached out to PLF, after a Creed senior had asked her, “Can’t we get lawyers or something?” Her son, who is dyslexic, had vastly improved at Creed, scoring far above what special-education teachers aimed for in his individual education plan. She believed that he wouldn’t get a spot at another inter-district magnet school and would fall behind.
“It sounds to me that we’re going to be ushering our kids in like cattle to Hillhouse,” she said before the vote to close Creed. But in the weeks after, she decided she didn’t want to compete in the lottery and enrolled her son at Hillhouse.
“I’d rather know for sure, have something solid for him, a plan,” she said. “I’m just going to have to lose a little more sleep with him at Hillhouse.”
Lawson initially told PLF that she couldn’t be the lead plaintiff. So another outspoken mom, Maritza Baez, volunteered.
“Maritza has agreed to and will be the ‘face’ of the entire lawsuit! I’ll be behind the scenes assisting her and you with anything you need,” Lawson wrote in an email to Dunford. Baez, she continued, worked “as an advocate for parents due to the laundry list of ... well ... I’ll let her tell you ... I’m not too ‘politically correct’ ... actually ... neither is she…! LOL.”
Baez said she grew suspicious when PLF’s lawyers said they could fly out within a week to meet with her. She really second-guessed her decision when members of NHPS Advocates, a watchdog group, told her that the NAACP and ACLU were teaming up against PLF in the Hartford case.
“I don’t know if I want to do all this,” Baez said she thought. She emailed Dunford, “After further thought and discussion with my family and allies, I am not comfortable taking part in the lawsuit.”
Lawson said she felt “demonized” by NHPS Advocates, who she said misunderstood her aims. “It’s not actually who you’re going up against; it’s who you’re fighting for,” she said. “It’s not only my kids but future kids in New Haven who are denied a better education because of their skin color.”
She then turned to the Board of Education.
Ed Joyner, the board member tasked with looking into it, said he initially considered that legal action might help. But in a phone call to another school district in Michigan, he learned about PLF’s conservative bent. “We want some relief, but we don’t want them to be the ones seen as leading,” he said. “We know what’s best for our own kids.”
“I Want To Fight For Our Kids”
After running into dead ends, Lawson decided to become the plaintiff herself.
“I have nothing to gain and nothing to lose. I just want to fight for our kids, because this is an unconstitutional mandate. The Board of Education themselves that night stated that this is wrong; everybody and their mother says it’s wrong. But nobody wants to do anything,” she said in a phone interview. “My thing is, if you’re going to fight, you bring it to a head. I’m just going for it. I don’t know how to explain it; I’m not the lawyer. But if I put my name down on that piece of paper and it affects future generations of kids, I’m all for it.”
Darnell Goldson, the Board of Education’s president, asked other Creed families not to sign up with PLF.
“Pacific Legal is an organization that has consistently fought desegregation,” he said. “I would hope that the families at Creed would not align themselves with organizations who do not have their best interests at heart.”
Lawson disputed that characterization.
“What does it matter what’s in it for them? What does it matter if they gain a billion dollars if they gave our students a voice? What does it matter what’s in it for them if future generations of our students get equal opportunity?” Lawson asked. “I don’t care what they gain from it; I know what we would gain from it.”
Goldson said that the process for moving kids from Creed into new high schools next year will follow state law and not “place kids in a way that discriminates,” he said.
He added that the Board of Education plans to take a closer look at New Haven’s inter-district magnet program in the coming months to see if it’s working. Along with Joyner, the board’s other elected representative, Goldson said he is considering forming a task force to evaluate the program and make recommendations.
“I believe a majority of Board of Education members feel that there is a need to reform the magnet program. It is not achieving the results intended and may be a little outdated for the current environment,” he said. “Frankly, it would be nice to have our neighborhoods, communities and schools desegregated, but my first goal is to get our kids well educated … whether or not that is at a magnet or neighborhood school.”