‘It Won’t Change Until We Address It’
65 years after Brown v. Board of Education ruling, lingering ‘de facto segregation’ stays in the county spotlight
Students lobby for an end to "de facto segregation" during a recent school board meeting.
Decades after the nation’s highest court ruled schools must allow white and black students to attend schools together, Montgomery County leaders say critical conversations are just beginning to put an end to lingering “de facto segregation.”
Today marks 65 years since the landmark unanimous Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, that said racial segregation of public schools is unconstitutional. The ruling, handed down May 17, 1954, mandated states integrate their schools.
The case originated with a lawsuit file by a black family in Kansas after their public school district refused to enroll their daughter in the school closest to their home, instead requiring her to attend a blacks-only school several miles away.
The Montgomery County public school system announced all of its schools were desegregated in 1961, according to school system documents.
Decades later, as heated debates about racial equity grow across the county amid racist incidents of students using racial slurs and posting photos to social media in blackface and the potential for shifted school boundaries, county education leaders say there is much work left to be done.
“Every disparity that exists in the world, exists right here in Montgomery County,” said Byron Johns, chairman of the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP Parents’ Council. “From discipline to housing to police interactions to criminal interactions, it’s a conversation that’s been avoided. It won’t change until we face up to it and address it.”
A widespread conversation about racism and segregated schools began earlier this year when parents at a forum about a countywide school boundary analysis argued against changing boundaries – which determine what schools students attend based on where they live – because doing so would decrease their home values and students from schools with higher concentrations of poverty “won’t be able to keep up” in historically high-performing schools, which generally have low concentrations of minority students.
Students argue children will learn integral life skills through interaction with “others who are not like them,” and say they are negatively impacted by a lack of diverse student populations in their schools.
The school board passed a resolution in January to hire an external consultant to explore ways to evenly distribute student populations throughout the county.
The decision was met with fierce backlash from the start, with many parents saying they fear their children will be forced to take long bus rides to schools far from their homes.
County Executive Marc Elrich, a former teacher, recently said those fears are “exaggerated,” and doesn’t believe long distance bussing is an option because it carries a high price tag.
“A lot of schools are fairly close to each other, and it wouldn’t take major changes in transportation for someone to go from one school to another,” Elrich said. “So I think a lot of fears are exaggerated in the sense of fearing that their kids are gonna be on long rides across the county.”
Last month, a community member used publicly available data to create an interactive map of county elementary schools, highlighting each school’s demographic makeup and utilization.
The map shows several areas in which schools more than 100 students over capacity are adjacent to schools that are underutilized.
School board vice president Pat O’Neill, the longest serving board member in school system history, said “we have legitimately made an effort in Montgomery County to desegregate schools,” but an achievement gap in performance between minority and white students persists.
“Every parent in this county wants what’s best for their child, but it’s the board’s responsibility to look out for and do what’s best for all children,” O’Neill said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
While conversations continue about the boundary study, expected to be completed next spring, the school system had undertaken a review of all school facility names to ensure they are all “appropriate” after County Council President Nancy Navarro asked the board to consider renaming Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School.
The school’s namesake was a prominent politician who is credited with creating the county’s first land-use and zoning system, but is accused of attaching racist policies that restricted minorities from buying or renting homes in many subdivisions.
Those housing policies and an “anti-busing” rhetoric among those who oppose boundary changes are at the heart of school segregation issues in Montgomery County today, the NAACP’s Johns said.
But, as heightened attention has been on race and equity issues in recent months, Byron said, important conversations have begun that will propel the county forward.
He pointed to ongoing efforts by the County Council to craft countywide racial equity and social justice legislation to ensure Montgomery County is “working intentionally to close gaps and disparities in all areas of society.” That legislation is expected to be presented and passed in the fall.
“The awareness that these things exist, and the racial equity lens the county is breaching, shed some light on things that … we do without really thinking about it and understanding the impact it has on different communities,” Johns said.
Navarro, the council’s first Latina member, said during a recent meeting she has been dealing with racism “from the moment I decide to run for public office,” and said one of her staff members was recently called the “N-word” by a constituent.
“This is happening right now, and for us to want to pretend that it’s not is absolutely ridiculous,” Navarro said. “It’s interesting because somehow people in our community are so scared we are diverse and somehow, something is going to be taken away from them, but then they’re reminded these changes didn’t happen overnight. They’ve been happening for decades, and we’re still a great, high-functioning county.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org