Racial issue at rest

Published 2:00 am Wednesday, August 8, 2012

W.S. Neal High School will no longer elect homecoming maids based on race, after an out-of-court agreement reached between the U.S. Justice Department and Escambia County Schools.
As a result of the agreement, the school board has established a policy that race will not be a basis for selection for any extracurricular activities.
The policy, sparked by a Justice Department investigation into the practice of choosing two homecoming queens — one white, one black — at Escambia County High School will also affect all of the other schools.
An October 2011 story in The Atmore Advance about the ECHS homecoming practice — which dated to the 1970s — apparently inspired the Justice Department investigation.
The Justice Department announced Friday that it reached an agreement with the Escambia County School District in Alabama to end the use of race-based selection criteria for homecoming courts and other student activities in two of the district’s high schools.
Escambia County Superintendent Randall Little said the practice was not school board policy, but rather a decision made by individual schools prior to the Justice Department stepping in. The school board acted quickly to rectify the problem, he said.
“The Department of Justice contacted us last year when Mr. (Billy) Hines was still superintendent and stated they had read an article in The Atmore Advance about the homecoming queens situation at Escambia County High School,” Little said. “They informed us that, based on that article, it appeared that the homecoming queen selection was based on a racial criteria. They informed us that, if that is the case, it was not in compliance with federal law and regulations.”
Little said the board immediately took steps to resolve the issue.
“We agreed that, yes that was true, but we that we would eliminate anything that was not in compliance,” Little said.
Last fall, Escambia County High School Principal Zickeyous Byrd expressed concern over the practice and encouraged Atmore residents to provide input on the issue.
“I’ve heard rumblings here and there that some people aren’t happy with it and we just wanted to see if this may be something that is outdated and needs to change,” Byrd said just prior to last year’s homecoming festivities.
The Justice Department said last week the practice legally has to change, as it violates portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
According to the Justice Department, the school district indicated that two of its high schools considered race in certain student elections. Escambia County High School permitted students to elect two homecoming queens and two homecoming attendants, one African-American and one not.
Another school, W.S. Neal High School, had a similar longstanding practice of using race-based criteria for election of students to its Homecoming courts, according to the Justice Department.
The Escambia County Board of Education voluntarily adopted a district-wide non-discrimination policy for extracurricular activities, which ends the use of race-based election and selection criteria in all student activities.
The agreement requires the district to fully implement and enforce its new non-discrimination policy, to notify parents and students of changes to student election practices and to provide compliance reports to the department for at least one year.
Byrd said Saturday the decision was a win for students at ECHS.
“I think that it’s a good move,” Byrd said. “We have definitely moved beyond those past traditions.”
Byrd said the new requirements are another step toward racial harmony, something he said is already present at ECHS.
“(Race) hasn’t been a problem for our students,” he said. “We have a culturally diverse school and our students are very diverse, so it has not been a problem at all for us. We think this is a good move.”
Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez commended the school board for their actions concerning the issue.
“We commend the Escambia County Board of Education for acting swiftly to abolish the use of race in student activities and to ensure that no student is denied participation in any extracurricular activity based on race,” Perez said in a statement. “It is time for the once common practice of segregating students by race in school activities to come to an end.”
The use of race-based selection and election criteria in public schools’ extracurricular activities, including homecoming courts, proms and similar activities is prohibited by Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars public school districts, colleges and universities from discriminating against students on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and religion.
The department has challenged such practices in a number of school districts over the years, including, most recently, settling with the Nettleton School District in Mississippi in 2011 to abolish race-based selection and election procedures for class officers, homecoming courts and student superlatives.