Separate and Unequal

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Kyle Spencer


Frank Koughan & Mary Robertson


Mary Robertson

Baton Rouge, LA

5:20 AM

NIKKI DANGERFIELD:  Caleb?  Caleb!  Come on, get up.

NARRATOR:  Nikki Dangerfield is a single mother with four children.  She works long hours as a FedEx manager.

NIKKI DANGERFIELD:  I get up at the crack of dawn, and sometime I don’t get home from work until 6:00, 7:00, maybe 8:00 o’clock, and then cook dinner, talk to the kids.  And then sometime I’m talking to them but halfway sleeping.  And it’s, like, OK, Mama.  Go to bed.  So, yes, I’m very busy, but I’m only busy for them.

You got your workbook?

CALEB:  Yes, ma’am.

NIKKI DANGERFIELD:  I cannot pay for an education, but I would like for them to get the best public education that they could.

Twitter #FrontlinePBS

NARRATOR:  Half a century ago, her children’s educational options would have been limited by their skin color.  Baton Rouge, like most of the South, had a segregated school system.  But after a hard fought Civil Rights battle, her children now have alternatives to the struggling schools in their own neighborhood.

NIKKI DANGERFIELD:  As a whole, I feel that the public school system has done right by my family.

CALEB:  Bye, Mom.  Love you.

NIKKI DANGERFIELD:   I love you, too.  Have a good day.

CALEB:  You, too.

NARRATOR:  Every morning before dawn, the Dangerfield kids wait for buses that will carry them to integrated schools throughout Baton Rouge.

NIKKI DANGERFIELD:  I think the benefit of the kids going to schools with different cultures, with children that have different economic backgrounds, they see a better life and they can say, “OK, what can I do to have a better life?”  They can dream bigger.

LIONEL RAINEY, St. George Campaign Spokesman:  These schools are some of the worst schools in the country.  They’re some of the most violent schools in the country.  Nobody’s getting educated in these schools.

NARRATOR:  But not everyone is happy with how busing has changed the schools here.

NORMAN BROWNING, Chair, City of St. George Incorporation Effort:  What have they done?  Where is their plan to better the schools?

NARRATOR:  Fed up with what they say are dangerous, failing and mismanaged schools, a group of residents has come up with a plan.  They’ve begun a movement to form an entirely new city out of a large area of suburban neighborhoods, taking part of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system with them.

NORMAN BROWNING:  You know, thank you for coming out tonight.  I see these children here— that’s why we’re here!  These children right here are why we’re here.  EBR’s failed our children for 30-plus years.

NARRATOR:  The new city would be called St. George, and would be whiter and more affluent than Baton Rouge.

NORMAN BROWNING:  And starting right here, with this petition right here, we have the opportunity to make a difference.  We can do it.  So come on up and sign the petition.  Thank you. [applause]

LIONEL RAINEY:  We’ve had enough of failing our children.  We’re not going to do it anymore, and we’ll go to the length of creating our own city to create our own education system, to take control back from the status quo.  The fight hasn’t even started yet.  The powers that be will do everything that they can do to make this not happen.

NARRATOR:  It will take roughly 18,000 signatures to get the idea on a ballot, and the group hopes to achieve that by the end of 2014.

49 signatures

NEWSCASTER:  —breaking away and forming a new school—

NARRATOR:  Around the country, movements like the one in Baton Rouge have been spreading over the past several years.

NEWSCASTER:  There is talk of secession in East Dallas—

NEWSCASTER:  And the city of Pelham is thinking about declaring its independence from the Shelby County school system.

NEWSCASTER:  They say their cities should have control over their own schools.

NARRATOR:  In city after city, mostly middle class parents, dissatisfied with their public school districts, are trying to break away.

1st WOMAN:  I think it would help out a lot if we, you know, broke off and became our own district.

NARRATOR:  The goal is to create smaller, community-oriented school systems.

2nd WOMAN:  The city of Brookhaven is acting in their own best interests.

NARRATOR:  But the result is often school districts that are less racially and economically diverse.

BELINDA DAVIS, Pres., One Community One School District:  They are carving out a section of town that is wealthier and whiter than what they are leaving behind.

NARRATOR:  Critics are concerned that decades after the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s, the era of school integration may be coming to an end.

GARY ORFIELD, Co-Director, The Civil Rights Project at UCLA:  If Martin Luther King were to come back and see where we are now, I think he’d be shocked to see that the schools are actually more segregated than they were when he died.

NARRATOR:  Professor Orfield says that a series of Supreme Court rulings have eroded much of the progress made since the landmark Brown versus Board of Education decision 60 years ago.

GARY ORFIELD:  The Supreme Court really began to turn backwards decisively on desegregation in 1991.  So basically, that began the dismantling of desegregation plans across the country, and almost all of the larger ones have now been dismantled in our big cities.

[ More on the Supreme Court rulings]

NARRATOR:  In Baton Rouge, the desegregation order was lifted in 2003.  The student population is now 11 percent white, and many in the school district are concerned that number will drop even lower if the St. George proposal succeeds.

[One Community One School District meeting]

BELINDA DAVIS:  —and that is not fair to the children who remain behind in the East Baton Rouge—

NARRATOR:  Belinda Davis, a local activist with three children in the Baton Rouge schools, is vowing to prevent the creation of the new City of St. George.

BELINDA DAVIS:  You are automatically going to be creating a city that is less diverse than the one you are leaving.  And we have all kind of specialized services in schools that we are able to provide because of the size of our school district.  All of that is in jeopardy if this new school system is created.

There are about 6,696 students that will be displaced if the new city school district is created.

I mean, this is about lives.  This is about potential that we are squashing by continuing to carve up our school district, that we can do wonderful things together.  We’re stronger as one than we are broken up into pieces.

NARRATOR:  Among those fighting to keep the school district intact is Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden.

Mayor KIP HOLDEN:  We do not allow a small group of people to divide us, weaken our capital city, bankrupt our future.

NARRATOR:  But he faces stiff opposition from some of his constituents.

Mayor KIP HOLDEN:  Thank you all for the opportunity to address you.  And I’m free to answer any questions that you have.  Yes, sir?

1st MAN:  I was watching the news one night, and they had you on TV that you are opposed to this area becoming a St. George City?

Mayor KIP HOLDEN:  Yes sir.

1st MAN:  And the question is, why would you want to oppose letting the people of this area vote on that issue?

Mayor KIP HOLDEN:  Well, because, first of all, Baton Rouge has come too far as a united city.  I’m against division when it’s not needed.

2nd MAN:  The city of St. George will still be in the parish of East Baton Rouge Parish.  It will not be separating.

Mayor KIP HOLDEN:  Well, it will separate in this sense.  The plan that’s out there will be trying to take money allocated for the whole parish, and operate their city, and—

NARRATOR:  Holden says that the school district relies on the taxes paid by the more affluent neighborhoods now trying to break away, and that without that money, the schools will suffer.

NORMAN BROWNING:  What will happen is that the city of Baton Rouge would have to stand alone.  They would not be able to siphon money from the other cities outside of Baton Rouge that’s being paid into the parish.

Mayor KIP HOLDEN:  It will be segregated along race lines and class lines.  It’s going to be devastating to the school system as a whole.  A lot of the poor areas will not be receiving the same quality education.

MAN:  Are you saying we’re supplementing these people right now?

Mayor KIP HOLDEN:  Yes.

MAN:  We’re supplementing them that be in trouble?

Mayor KIP HOLDEN:  We’re supplementing each other.

I came from a poor background, but yet it was the fact that I was introduced to a broader range of people and things that allowed me to get out of those poor circumstances up to where I am now.

MAN:  I think the frustration lies in the fact that people are fed up with this money that I’m talking about getting put into the city revenue stream, and we’re not getting the return on it.

Mayor KIP HOLDEN:  We’re trying to tell people, you know, it’s time for us to stick together.  We’ve come too far.  Too much progress has been made to turn that clock back.

NARRATOR:  To understand what the two sides are fighting over, it helps to look at Woodlawn High.  Its story is the same as thousands of others.  When it was founded in 1949, most of its 286 students lived nearby, and they were all white.

DANIEL EDWARDS, Principal, Woodlawn High School:  How has Woodlawn changed over the years?  I think all you need to do is go down the hallway by the gym and see the different senior class pictures, and you’re going to see the increase in diversity.  That’s the main difference that I see, is just greater representation of all peoples in society here.

NARRATOR:  Today, Woodlawn has over 1,200 students, and its population is around 60 percent African-American.  The school has special programs for gifted and talented students.

TEACHER:  These are non-diluted acids, so—

NARRATOR:  There’s an orchestra and marching band, advanced placement classes and a popular football team.  But schools in the district have also been struggling.  Around 40 percent of them are rated D or F, and the state has taken over part of the school system.  Woodlawn also has its share of problems.

DANIEL EDWARDS:  We’re a C-rated school.  We made some gains last year.  We’re excited that we’re going to probably make some gains this year.  Obviously, we want to be a B and we want to ultimately be an A.  I’m proud of what we’re doing here.

NARRATOR:  That progress isn’t enough for Norman Browning, the leader of the St. George campaign.

NORMAN BROWNING:  Our children aren’t getting an education.  They’re failing our children because our children are not getting the education they deserve.

NARRATOR:  Browning say that years of busing stemming from the Civil Rights era have destroyed the sense of community for a lot of Baton Rouge schools.

NORMAN BROWNING:  Parents want schools that their children can go to in their neighborhood.   I’m against transporting children out of their neighborhoods to go clear across town to go to school.

I can look back to my school years, the neighborhood schools, and being sent to the principal’s office, and the principal saying, Boy, you want me to call your daddy?  You know, because you know what?  I knew he knew my father.  It’s about bringing community back.  It’s about bringing schools back to our community.

NARRATOR:  He’s no stranger to Woodlawn High.

NORMAN BROWNING:  Close to 15 years, I’ve volunteer-coached at Woodlawn High School.  So my involvement with this campaign really stems from what I saw from the inside, the lack of control in the classrooms, the lack of control in the halls.

NARRATOR:  The school has been plagued with discipline issues— 61 arrests in 2013.

NORMAN BROWNING:  These are the things that just totally disrupt other students who are there to get an education.

NARRATOR:  Students have even posted videos of fights on YouTube.  Browning’s group seized on them in a scathing ad.

NORMAN BROWNING:  The principal doesn’t have the proper people in there to control the students.  They’re baby-sitting them.  They’re not educating them, they’re baby-sitting them!

DANIEL EDWARDS, Principal, Woodlawn High School:  We’ve been described as a zoo, even.  When you put 1,200 kids in a building with over 90 faculty members, you’re going to have conflict.  That’s part of.  That’s the nature of it.  So I take offense to people who say this is a dangerous school, and I really get a little upset when individuals from outside our school characterize us that way and they’ve never stepped foot in our school.

DOMOINE RUTLEDGE, Attorney, E. Baton Rouge Parish Schools:  Well, I’m a parent of two kids in public schools.  I’m concerned about discipline also.  That doesn’t mean I want to, essentially, secede from the union.  I want to, you know, work with the principal, work with the parents, and let’s see what the problems are.

NARRATOR:  Domoine Rutledge is the school district’s attorney and was involved in Baton Rouge’s desegregation efforts.  He says the schools overall have been improving, and it’s not busing that’s been a problem, it’s that white families have been leaving.

DOMOINE RUTLEDGE:  You know, it’s a question of almost which came first, the chicken or the egg, because without the forced busing, you probably would not have had the white flight.  However, you probably would have still had for too long a period of time a system that was not desegregated, which was the mandate.  We’ve got to desegregate these schools and we’ve got to have everybody embrace the concept that regardless of color, we can go to school together and get along and get educated.

NARRATOR:  That’s exactly the opportunity Nikki Dangerfield’s kids are taking advantage of.  She says the East Baton Rouge Parish school system may not be perfect, but it gives them options.

NIKKI DANGERFIELD:  My three boys go to three different middle schools.  The reason being, each school caters to them.  Aaron is in the gifted program.  He goes to one of the middle schools.  They have the best gifted program in Baton Rouge.  Zephaniah goes to a school that has smaller classroom settings because that’s what he needs.  Caleb is in performing arts, so he goes to McKinley Middle.  That is a performing arts school.

NARRATOR:  But if the new city of St. George happens, many of the district’s schools would become part of it, including Woodlawn High, which is where Aaron would like to go because, despite its problems, it’s rated better than the high school in his neighborhood.

AARON:  I’d like to go to Woodlawn High because it has a gifted program and a football team, so I can be able to play high school football at the same time as I focus on my work in school.  I want a high school that has sports programs and has, like, science programs and technology programs.

NARRATOR:  Dangerfield’s oldest daughter, Joy, was her high school valedictorian.  Today, she’s a student at LSU.

JOY:  My mom was talking to me about the school choices for my little brother, Aaron.  And you know, she was telling me how much he wanted to attend Woodlawn High.  My mom talked to the secretary, and she explained to her that, you know, he couldn’t attend that school because he doesn’t live in that area and then that they were pulling away.  And so she told my little brother Aaron, and he was really upset because he was, like, “Well, Mom, that’s the only school I want to go to.”

NIKKI DANGERFIELD:  If St. George happens, they’re going to take the better schools with them.  You’re no longer giving other kids a choice.

NARRATOR:  It’s not just that kids like Aaron wouldn’t be able to enroll at Woodlawn.  There’s fear that some students already enrolled there, many of them poor and minorities, could be asked to leave.

DANIEL EDWARDS:  I would assume that if boundaries change, there may be some students who would no longer attend this school.  Certainly, as principal of Woodlawn High School, I want to attract students to our school, as opposed to losing any students.  So it’d be— it would be sad— [swallows hard]  I’m sorry— because as principal, you grow attached to every student you have.  And I would hate to see anyone leave.

So the sad— the saddest thing to me would be for kids to not have the opportunity to express their own opinions about where they want to go to school.

Sen. MACK “BODI” WHITE (R), LA State Senate:  East Baton Rouge Parish was probably the best public school system in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

NARRATOR:  State Senator Bodi White has already helped another neighborhood split off and form its own school system.  He’s a long-time opponent of federally mandated busing.

Sen. BODI WHITE:  The federal government, through their actions, I think the forced busing— it just destroyed the school system.

NARRATOR:  The fight to desegregate the Baton Rouge schools was one of the longest in the nation.  For 15 years, beginning in 1981, the school district was forced to bus its children to achieve integration.

Sen. BODI WHITE:  And I’ll use me as an example.  I had a choice to put my 5-year-old daughter on a school bus and give her an hour bus ride to a school that was two to three years behind the national average in testing.  Busing children forced the middle class and upper middle class families to drop out of public education.

DOMOINE RUTLEDGE:  You saw a mass exodus of white families from the school system.  Unfortunately, too many of them decided, “We fear the unknown and we’re not going to do it.”

NARRATOR:  Today, while there is no federally forced busing, parents can still have their children bused to better schools around Baton Rouge.  With the St. George proposal, Rutledge is worried Baton Rouge is taking a step backwards.

DOMOINE RUTLEDGE:  The end result of that is it excludes children, and those children are minority children.  Those children are black children.  We have done a full-throttle reversal in this community, and we’re resegregating our school system.

NARRATOR:  The issue has become deeply divisive.

NORMAN BROWNING:  When I read headlines such as the fact that this is nothing but a secession to get away from the low-income citizens, as well as making it a race issue, it’s extremely disturbing to me.  This is nothing more than a middle class community incorporating a city.

Yes, I’ve been called a racist in no uncertain terms.  I’m not a racist.  I can’t— you know, I’m not going to try to attempt to defend it.  What I do is I let my actions speak, and how I conduct myself and how I treat people speak.

NARRATOR:  The St. George advocates argue that the racial and financial implications of their plan are being exaggerated.  But the opponents point to a 2013 analysis by LSU economists which predicts the new city would be around 70 percent white and leave Baton Rouge with a big annual deficit.

GARY ORFIELD, Co-Director, The Civil Rights Project at UCLA:  People who do things that have racial implications always say that race has nothing to do with it.  I mean, I’m not judging what their personal motivations are.  But nobody ever says, “We intentionally just want to discriminate” when they do something that will have the effect of deepening inequality.

9,023 signatures

NARRATOR:  Despite the opposition, the petition to make St George a reality is picking up steam.  At the end of 2013, the group said it had over 9,000 signatures, half of what’s needed to get the issue put on a ballot.

The Reverend C.L. Bryant, a Tea Party activist, came to Baton Rouge to support the St. George movement.

Rev. C.L. BRYANT:  —our God, we ask you now to watch over these faithful men as they try to bring into existence and call that thing which be not as though it were, a new city in this great land that you have given us, America.  Thank you for it.  Amen.

Hello, my fellow Louisianians.  You have, I believe, a very unique opportunity.  You have people who want to divide us down racial lines.  You must do what is right for your pocketbook, and don’t you be afraid of what they call you.  Don’t you allow anyone to turn you back from that.

Rev. C.L. BRYANT:  Americans, I would ask you to stand up!  Stand up!

Sen. MACK “BODI” WHITE (R), LA State Senate:  I’m happy to see all of you here tonight.

These folks are trying to do what’s right, and as we go through this campaign, there’s a lot of pressure.  There’ll be a lot of folks trying to scare you.  That’s the name of the game.  It’s called intimidation.  The middle class in this parish— you’re taking back control of your kids and your destiny.

BELINDA DAVIS, Pres., One Community One School District:  This evening made me very sad, that basically, they’re now talking about this, you know, in terms of income and that it’s OK to segregate yourself from poor people, and that it is OK for you to do what is right for your pocketbook without thinking about your entire community and the people that you’re harming in the process.  I— it was— it was very sad.

[ Share your thoughts]

Rep. PATRICIA HAYNES SMITH (D), LA House of Representatives:  This group of white parents want to have the best for their children and forget about anybody else.

NARRATOR:  State Representative Patricia Smith has been a vocal opponent of the effort to create the new school district.

Rep. PATRICIA HAYNES SMITH:  The proponents of the school district don’t like to hear this, but it’s totally going to be segregation.  When you look at the children who will be removed from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, children who are going to go into this new St. George, the majority of children are white, and the majority of children that will be removed from St. George will be black.

Sen. BODI WHITE:  Do you think that you have to bus children all over, bus children long distances so you can say you sit in a seat next to someone diverse, different from yourself?  The Justice Department, you know, they achieved their goal.  Who can say we’re not desegregated?  We have an African-American president.  We have an African-American mayor here in Baton Rouge, with a majority white in the parish.  We’ve been through all that.  We need to let us go back and rebuild our schools now.

Rep. PATRICIA HAYNES SMITH:  I believe that folks are beginning to get in their heads— many conservatives are saying we have a black president, so we don’t have to worry about anything else dealing with black folk across the country.  That is not true.  We’re now beginning to realize that you can never stop the fight for racial equality.  You can never stop that fight.

NIKKI DANGERFIELD:  I think Baton Rouge as a whole will suffer, not just our schools.  And I don’t think that people should have the right to change history.  They are taking resources from people that need them the most.  All schools should be created equal.

NARRATOR:  The St. George advocates say they are getting close to their goal and are within a few thousand signatures of getting on the ballot later this year.

NORMAN BROWNING:  This can be wonderful for all of us, for our families.  We can have a great city of St. George.  It doesn’t mean it has to hurt the city of Baton Rouge.  The only one that’s going to hurt the city of Baton Rouge is Baton Rouge.  I’m tired of hearing the remarks in the news media and in the paper about how it’s going to destroy East Baton Rouge Parish, how it’s going to destroy Baton Rouge.  The only way that happens is if they let it.

NARRATOR:  Months later, in mid-May, the city council would pass a measure designed to stop the St. George petition, and the group has vowed to fight back in court.

NORMAN BROWNING:  We’ve got a wonderful opportunity here.  The state capitol can’t stop this.  The city council can’t stop this.  Mayor Holden can’t stop this as long as we want it.  [cheers and applause]

[In late June, the school district replaced at least 18 principals.  Woodlawn’s Daniel Edwards was reassigned to another school as assistant principal.]

[Aaron Dangerfield was accepted at a magnet school and decided not to attend Woodlawn.]

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