BOSTON -- A federal appeals court declared Boston's once-turbulent public school system officially desegregated Monday and said the federal judge who approved student school assignments for 13 years could remove himself from the landmark busing case.
'I think it's probably the most important decision that's come down in the past 10 years,' Boston School Committee Chairman John Nucci said of the ruling issued by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The three-judge panel ruled the city had 'performed in good faith in recent years' to end racial imbalance in the city's 123 public schools.
The case was sent back to U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., who issued the original order to desegregate Boston's schools in 1974 and has overseen the system since. The court gave Garrity permission to remove himself from the case.
The 53-page ruling allows the School Committee to change student school assignments without first receiving permission from Garrity, officials said. Garrity ended his daily involvement with the schools in 1982, but retained control over the crucial matter of school assignments.
'It says very clearly that because we've been committed to the principles of desegregation, because we do not ever want to run a segregated school system again, and because we have grown and matured as a city, we now can have some flexibility and perhaps can give parents significantly greater choice in where their children attend school,' Nucci said.
The ruling found that while 13 public schools remained 'racially identifiable' -- more than 80 percent of the students of one race, either white or black -- it found 'all these schools are in compliance with the district court's desegregation orders.'
Moreover, the court said it was unlikely the 13 schools could be further integrated by Garrity since the racial imbalance 'is rooted not in discrimination but in more intractable demographic obstacles.'
The court ruling came as 650 school bus drivers continued their walkout that has left 27,000 public school children seeking alternative transportation.
Little progress had been reported in the 13-day-old strike, but school Superintendent Laval S. Wilson said Monday he would agree to binding arbitration to end the strike if the drivers first returned to work.
Garrity put the Boston public schools in receivership in 1974 when black plaintiffs complained minority students were not receiving an equal education, and Garrity ordered the busing of thousands of students.
The tangled and complex case, which forced Garrity to issue a series of 400 orders to bring about the busing of 60 percent of the system's students, tore the city with intense racial hostilities. Enrollment has dropped from 95,000 to the current 56,000 students.
Busing to achieve desegregation continues in all but four schools, officials said.
During the most turbulent of times of the case in the mid-1970s, Garrity was hanged in effigy, demonstrators jeered outside his home and he was constantly guarded by U.S. marshals after he became the target of death threats.
The landmark case was filed March 15, 1972, in U.S. District Court by the Boston branch of the NAACP, charging the Boston School Committee was pursuing a policy of educational racism that 'borders on the fringes of racial insanity.'
More than two years later -- on June 21, 1974 -- Garrity found for the plaintiffs and ordered the busing of whites, blacks and other minorities to balance the racial complexion of the city's schools.
The orders enraged tempers and buses were stoned and fights broke out across the city. State police patroled the corridors of South Boston High School, where the most violent clashes occured.
At one anti-busing protest, a white demonstrator speared a black man with an American flag on the steps of City Hall -- a haunting image captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph that for much of the nation came to represent the state of race relations in Boston.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Garrity's busing orders by refusing to hear appeals.