MPSD edges closer to unitary status

Aug. 18—The Meridian Public School District may soon be out from under a federal desegregation order 58 years after it was first sued over what was then a dual school system.

A Fairness Hearing and Unitary Status Hearing is scheduled for Sept. 12 in front of Judge Henry T. Wingate of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi to discuss a settlement agreement first reached between the school district and plaintiffs four years ago.

"This has been filed since 2018 and it is just now coming up," said Meridian school board attorney John Compton.

If the settlement agreement is accepted by the court, the Meridian Public School District will no longer be under the desegregation order or the consent decree and will be granted unitary status, which means the court system no longer supervises the school system's student assignments, school realignments and other decisions.

A school district is considered unitary by the U.S. Department of Justice when it has eliminated the effects of past segregation to the extent practicable.

The court has preliminarily approved the settlement agreement.

In 1965, a lawsuit was filed by Meridian parents against the Meridian Municipal Separate School District, then an all-white district, seeking to end the city's dual school systems. Students from Harris High, the district for Black students, wanted a chance to attend schools closest to them. The Justice Department soon joined the lawsuit.

Two years later, a desegregation order was filed against the school district by the federal courts, like in many school districts across the state, forcing it to adhere to the Supreme Court's landmark desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Meridian school board attorney John Compton said the school district was contacted by the Justice Department a decade ago, suggesting the school system file for unitary status.

MPSD was in the process of doing so when it came under a landmark consent decree in 2013 regarding the district's disciplinary practices and law enforcement in schools.

Under the proposed settlement agreement, private plaintiffs will not oppose the district's motion for unitary status, according to a published notice announcing the hearing. Moving forward, the parties agree that the school district will implement a series of remedial measures as to student assignment, faculty assignment and school discipline.

Some of the policies the two sides agreed to were increasing the participation of Black students in the district's gifted programs, assessing the feasibility of a magnet program, recruiting more minority teachers to the district, incorporating more restorative policies with the goal of keeping students in the classroom following disciplinary actions and ensuring all school district resource officers receive adequate training to adhere to district policies.

"Everybody is in agreement on the settlement," Compton said, including the Justice Department and the NAACP, another party in the suit. He feels certain the settlement will be approved.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 32 of the state's 144 school districts currently remain under federal desegregation orders, including Meridian and the Lauderdale County School District. The Sept. 12 hearing applies only to the Meridian Public School District.

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