Federal bias inquiry targets 2 magnet schools

Federal officials are investigating a discrimination complaint about admissions policies in two of the Charleston County School District’s magnet schools.

Erica Taylor, spokeswoman for the school district, confirmed Thursday that officials with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights are meeting with Charleston school administrators this week. She did not elaborate with details of the meetings or what they could mean for the school district.

A U.S. Department of Education spokesman said the department’s Office for Civil Rights has one open investigation involving the Charleston County School District stemming from a complaint regarding issues of possible discrimination based on race in admissions. The office opened an investigation into the district in December. The spokesman declined to discuss details regarding the complaint, including any visits with the school district, citing the ongoing investigation.

Local civil rights activist the Rev. Nelson Rivers III filed a complaint last fall with the Office for Civil Rights over concerns about a lack of diversity within Charleston County schools, specifically Academic Magnet High School and the Charleston County School of the Arts. Rivers filed the complaint after Academic Magnet’s football team drew criticism in October for a victory ritual of chanting and smashing watermelons, which some saw as racially offensive.

Of Academic Magnet’s 610 students, only about 12 percent are minorities, including just 15 black students. Around 25 percent of the School of the Arts’ 1,120 students are minorities, including 167 black students.

“It’s impossible to produce that result without some kind of discrimination on the basis of race,” Rivers said of the low numbers of black students at Academic Magnet.

Rivers said he met with Office for Civil Rights officials on Wednesday to discuss the details of his complaint. He said he didn’t know who officials may be speaking with in the school district, but that they were planning to “cover a lot of interviews while they were here.”

Rivers said his wish is that the investigation will end what he described as “widespread segregation within desegregated schools.”

Charleston County does have issues with diversity at both ends of the spectrum at several of its schools. Among those schools, Burke Middle-High School has only one white student out of around 450, while Sullivan’s Island Elementary has only two black students out of about 500.

The district as a whole has a student population that is around 43 percent black, 45 percent white and 8 percent Hispanic. According to census data, Charleston County is around 67 percent white and 29 percent black.

“My hope is that Charleston County, for the first time, will have a desegregated school system, and at the same time, will end the practice of having high-quality education for just some children, and end the practice of publicly funded private school education,” he said.

The district has already begun to evaluate issues of diversity and academic achievement with the launch earlier this spring of its Task Force for Rigor & Diversity. A series of task force subcommittees are evaluating a number of topics, including magnet school admissions. Recommendations from the group will go before the school board for consideration later this year.

Academic Magnet students and parents have spoken out on both sides of the issue about how to improve diversity at the school. Some think a lottery for students who meet admissions requirements would help address the problem. Others think the issue lies in improving the academic achievement at middle schools so more students have a chance to get in.

Recent Academic Magnet graduate John Seibels and his father, Jay Seibels, told the school board on Monday that they think the current admissions process for the school is fair and ensures the most academically qualified students are accepted. Rather than change that the process, which Jay Seibels described as “race blind,” the father and son challenged the district to think about how to diversify the students applying.

Students are accepted for admission to the school based on their score on a 15-point scale that includes points for teacher recommendations, academic performance and standardized test scores. Students who score a 13 or above qualify for admission, but in recent years, few students with a score of less than 14 have gotten in.

“There’s nothing exclusive about the admissions process at all, racially or ethically or socioeconomically,” said John Seibels, who is white and graduated from Academic Magnet last year. “Anyone can apply and anyone can go there.”

What’s not working, Jay Seibels told the board, are the middle schools that feed Academic Magnet, noting that some middle schools fail to have any students accepted as freshmen to the magnet school.

“I wonder why that’s tolerated?” Seibels said. “Why aren’t those kids taught the standards so they can get in? And that needs to be addressed.”

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.