Concerned residents give Department of Justice an earful

  • Thursday, May 22, 2014

Eileen Keithly/For South Strand News Department of Justice attorney Tom Fulkinburgh explains the length of time it sometimes takes for school districts to make corrective actions in regards to decent decrees.

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Representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a fact-finding mission at Georgetown County schools this week, and heard members of the black community charge that black students are not treated equally.

Justice Department attorney Tom Fulkinburgh was tight-lipped about why the department chose to visit the school district, but acknowledged it involved a 1997 consent decree between the department and the Georgetown School District that required the district to take steps to improve facilities, and the racial balance of staff and students in schools.

Fulkinburgh and colleague Jessica Baker had an opportunity to listen to the public twice during their visit.

At the Arnette AME Church on Sunday evening, they heard from parents, grandparents, School Board members, County Council members, current and retired teachers, and concerned citizens who were on a fact-finding mission of their own, seeking answers about what they perceive as continued inequality in county schools.

“Racism and discrimination are alive in Georgetown County,” an emotional Everlena Lance told Fulkinburgh and Baker.

Everett Carolina raised questions about the hiring and recruiting of faculty, and whether candidates were given equal treatment.

He also claimed that black students, who make up 46 percent of enrollment, account for 77 percent of the suspensions.

In addition, he said, the district is not enforcing enrollment zones created to improve racial balance in schools, resulting in segregated schools at Brown’s Ferry and Plantersville.

Harold Jean Brown, a life member of the NAACP and former school board member, helped facilitate the meeting by reading questions from index cards for attendees who chose not to be identified.

One question was:

“Have you, as the Department of Justice, ever made a study of the black male turnover in Georgetown County in regards to expulsions and suspensions, and if so what were the findings?”

Not being able to recall specific numbers, Fulkinburgh explained that his department collected data a year ago, and would continue to collect and analyze it.

When pushed by another person for more information, Fulkinburgh replied, “It is my recollection of the data that African American males were disproportioned, but I don’t recall the specifics on that.”

Decades

A federal judge in 1970 placed the school district under court order to correct racial imbalances in schools. The order divided the district into attendance zones aimed at improving the racial balance.

In 1997, the School Board entered into consent decree with the Justice Department aimed at addressing that agency’s concerns about inequality in facilities and staffing in schools.

In recent years, district officials have sought to show the Justice Department that the district has made sufficient progress and should be removed from federal oversight.

A new middle school and high school were built in the predominantly black Carvers Bay community in response to the consent decree.

However, a study commissioned by the school district in 2012 indicated 11 of the 18 schools in the county remained racially imbalanced, with their student population not reflecting the overall racial makeup of the county.

The imbalance largely was the result of demographics, with much of the black population in the southern end of the county and a large white population on the Waccamaw Neck, according to the study.

When asked about what prompted the Justice Department visit, Fulkinburgh said, “We are not here to give official statements, but we are willing to listen to your concerns.”

Kids not cars

Fulkinburgh sparked a rumbling in the room at the AME Church when he told the crowd that although it could take anywhere from five to 50 years, “The ultimate goal is to get the school district out from under court supervision.”

“Why is it acceptable for it to take five years to 50 years,” one person asked. “Why is there no cut off?”

“Every school is individualized,” Fulkinburgh said. “Some school districts make a lot more effort to accomplish desegregation order goals very quickly, and others have a lot more challenges.”

After Fulkinburgh compared the differences in school districts and their desegregation cases to the difference in a major automobile accident and a fender bender, the citizen went on to say, “We are talking about children and not cars… How many generations of kids are going through, and not getting what they need?”

Fulkinburgh and Baker also attended a community meeting on Monday at Hopewell Baptist Church in the Choppee community, and heard from an even more vocal crowd.

“Please don’t leave us like we are… we need your help,” pleaded Alveria Cooper. “Our expulsion ratings are so high because all these new white teachers don’t know how to work with little black kids. Can’t you require them to have some training?”

Cooper said children in the Pleasant Hill Elementary attend school in an almost “all-white” teaching environment.

Dezariea Young agreed.

“Our kids need help, and they need help now,” she said. “We need more black teachers in Pleasant Hill.”

Asked to comment on the Department of Justice visit, Dr. Randy Dozier, Georgetown County superintendent of Schools, said, “We turn in a report to them every year, but we are pleased that they are here. We feel like it will be helpful for them to actually visit the schools and travel the distance that our 800-square-mile district is made up of.”

Fulkinburgh and Baker concluded their visit to Georgetown on Tuesday by touring several schools, including the Coastal Montessori Charter School that is located in a wing of the Waccamaw Middle School.

School District attorney David Duff told the School Board on Tuesday night that Fulkinburgh and Baker visited about 17 schools and were “impressed” with them.

“You just see equality of facilities and educational opportunities,” Duff said.

He said Fulkinburgh and Baker spoke with administrators in the distict office, and administrators and teachers in the schools.

Duff said the School District has been trying to schedule a visit from the Department ofd Justice for about a year.

Staff writer Chris Sokoloski contributed to this story.

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