WNPR

Parties Seek Separate Paths For Hartford Kids As Sheff Case Heads Back To Court

Jun 15, 2017

Martha Stone is a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O'Neill case, which settled over 20 years ago. She said the state's current position threatens to harm Hartford students. 

"And so we're here today, because the state has begun to tear apart the key structures that have been in place for the last 21 years under this court's supervision," Stone said during her opening statement to the court.

The historic school desegregation case landed back in Hartford Superior Court on Wednesday, after the sides couldn't agree on the best path forward behind closed doors.  

The state would like to increase the maximum percentage of minority students in a Sheff magnet school from 75 percent, where it stands today, to 80 percent -- but only for schools that are already struggling to stay under this limit.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to keep the percentage the same for at least another six months while the parties hammer out another agreement.

The last agreement was made in 2013 and expires at the end of this month. The parties have been in ongoing mediation over the last year but could not come to an agreement. The entire first day of court was spent behind closed doors. Still no compromise could be met, so the plaintiffs are asking for more time.  

For the purposes of the Sheff agreement, a minority student is defined as black or Latino. All other races are included in a category called "reduced isolation students," but most of these kids are white or Asian.

Ralph Urban, an attorney with the state of Connecticut, pointed out that the number of white and Asian students applying to Hartford magnets has been falling over the years, and as this happens, fewer minority students are able to get in. 

"The current realities of changed and changing demographics, and a change to the applicant pool and the continuing changes to the composition of the applicant pool, raise the question of what has to be done," Urban said.  

Possible solutions are difficult, mainly because Hartford can't simply choose students to attend based on race because that would violate federal law, even though the entire Sheff case is about racial integration.

From the bench, Judge Marshall Berger commented on the significance of this hearing.

"This is probably the most important case here in the state of Connecticut," he said.

The trial is expected to continue through Friday.