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Boston judge trying to settle historic school desegregation case

United States District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. wants out. He has set June 30, 1985, when the current school year ends, as the date of his tentative withdrawal from the Boston school desegregation case.

Judge Garrity has supervised the operations of the Boston public school system since 1974, when he ordered the desegregation plan into effect.

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The plaintiffs who filed the original suit in 1972 and the defendants - the Boston School Committee, the City of Boston, and the state Board of Education - and other parties who joined the case, will file final papers with the court by Dec. 15.

Judge Garrity will base his final orders on these papers and on the defendants' compliance with 12 conditions he set in December 1982.

The judge took a step toward withdrawal Oct. 26 by dropping control over two matters covered in those conditions: school pairings with colleges, cultural institutions, and businesses; and the system's compliance with state requirements for preparing ''special needs'' students to qualify for classes in the general curriculum with other students.

At the same time he refused to relinquish jurisdiction over the public schools' handling of discipline and of safety and security.

Other unsettled matters that Garrity admonished participants to resolve were: the method of assigning students to schools, determination of future plans for the use of facilities (closing down some school buildings and other facilities and opening new ones), and assignment of administrators and faculty.

In the 10 years since the judge ordered the desegreation plan into effect there have been a number of major changes in the school system, not all of them positive.

The racial makeup of the school system's enrollment has been virtually reversed. In 1974, 65 percent of Boston's 90,000 pupils were white; today the total enrollment is 59,000, and only 30 percent are white. Of the remaining 70 percent, 49 percent are black and 21 percent other minorities.

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Many white families moved to nearby suburbs or enrolled their children in private or parochial schools. Some white parents kept their children out of schools for an extended length of time.

Some 3,000 of Boston's black children are enrolled in suburban schools under a voluntary busing program of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (Metco), which is supported in part by state funds.

The racial tension and occasional violence that marked the first two or three years of desegregation here have subsided. The public schools opened peacefully in September.

''My plan is to close the case this year,'' Garrity said at the Oct. 26 hearing. ''I expect all parties involved in the case to work out a final agreement by Dec. 15. If this has not been resolved, the court will present its own plan.''

Withdrawal, he adds, means that the court will no longer oversee the Boston school system on a detailed basis but the court will retain some jurisdiction.

Judge Garrity expressed some disappointment that the city school department had not met the conditions of a new discplinary code worked out by the plaintiffs and defense. He also withheld approval of safety provisions in relation to busing, citing an alleged shortage of bus monitors. Most of the initial violence was directed against school buses - mostly in the form of rock-throwing and vandalism.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs contended that disciplinary action against black and other minority children continues to be harsher than that involving white students. This has been a common complaint in the Boston desegregation case and others. ''Is racial discrimination at work?'' asked Thomas I. Atkins, attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ''Are black students singled out for discipline?''

It was also reported that there are still occasional incidents of rock-throwing and fights on school buses, in spite of the institution of a new safety plan by the school department. Judge Garrity said the new plan will be assessed by the time he makes a final ruling.

''The school department has come a long way, far enough to merit early relinquishment of court jurisdiction,'' the judge said. ''The court's withdrawal on a limited basis is a basic step toward final withdrawal.''

Both sides say Boston's public schools have progressed during Judge Garrity's decade of guidance.

Changes have included such innovations as schools being paired with colleges, businesses, and cultural agencies; the opening of magnet schools to encourage integration; the hiring of enough black teachers and administrators to maintain a 19 percent minority portion in such positions, and the signing of the ''Boston compact,'' under which 316 local firms have agreed to hire city high school graduates.

These features of the Boston plans have been adapted by other US school systems in setting up desegregation plans.

Judge Garrity expressed his ''hope that all parties return with a plan that meets requirements of the 1982 court order'' but warned that ''if there are any drastic changes, the court will require added years of supervision.''

He said the Massachusetts State Board of Education will continue its role as the court's monitor of school desegregation, a duty assigned in 1982.

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