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Local residents in Harnett County are going to the federal government with charges of discrimination against local education leaders. 

Tuesday, Citizens for Harnett Educational Fairness (CHEF) and the Harnett County Chapter of the NAACP held a press conference announcing they have filed a federal Title VI complaint against the Harnett County Board of Education for “intentionally discriminatory acts,” including rejecting a student reassignment plan that would have addressed racial imbalances in certain schools. 

“African American students and their families are being injured, and we will not stand for that,” said Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, in a copy of the press announcement handed out to reporters. 

John Smith, co-chair of CHEF, explained during that press conference that the complaint revolves around three schools: Dunn Middle and its two “feeder” schools Harnett Primary and Wayne Avenue Elementary, the only majority African-American schools in the district. 

The racial breakdown of the students in the district for 2014-15 was 49.2 percent white, 24.8 percent African American, and 11.1 percent Latino, according to Smith. At the press conference, he contrasted those numbers with that of the three majority African-American schools. Dunn Middle was 47.2 percent African American and 31.2 percent white. Harnett Primary was 46.2 percent African American and 29.2 percent white. And Wayne Elementary was 52.3 percent African American and 28.6 percent white. 

Smith noted that two other district middle schools — Harnett Central Middle and Coats Erwin Middle — are majority white, with African-American students only making up 18 to 19 percent of the population. 

“The reassignment plan that the board rejected would have balanced these racial disparities and addressed the dangerous overcrowding at Harnett Central Middle,” Smith said. 

The majority-white Harnett Central Middle is at 121 percent capacity and manages to accommodate its swelling population with the help of 24 trailers, but Dunn Middle, which is nearby, is only at 62 percent capacity, Smith said.

The racial isolation of the three majority African-American schools has had negative impacts on teacher turnover and students’ educational performance, Smith said.

Between 2009-10 and 2014-15, Dunn Middle EOG passing rates fell from 47.3 percent to 34.7 percent, and passing rates for just the school’s African-American students went from 30.8 to 20.8 percent, according to press-announcement notes handed out to reporters. The two feeder schools also saw drops in EOG passing rates during that time with African-American students hovering around the 20 percent mark in 2014-15. African-American students at two majority white elementary schools had much better passing rates on EOGs, according to the press-announcement notes.

In addition to the issues of educational performance, Dunn Middle is also struggling with teacher retention: It had a 33 percent teacher turnover rate — the highest in the district — in 2012-13.

“We are hopeful that intervention by the Office of Civil Rights will assist the board in moving forward to ensure all school children in Harnett County have equal access to educational resources,” he said. 

Title VI is a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It prohibits discrimination by race, color, or origin if a program or activity benefits from federal funding assistance.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.