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After 33 years in the Connecticut courts, a Hartford school integration lawsuit reaches a settlement

Milo Sheff and Elizabeth Horton Sheff in 1989 at the time of the filing of their lawsuit, Sheff v. O'Neill, in Hartford Superior Court.
Courtesy of The Sheff Movement for Quality and Integrated Education
Milo Sheff and Elizabeth Horton Sheff in 1989 at the time of the filing of their lawsuit, Sheff v. O'Neill, in Hartford Superior Court.

The landmark case Sheff versus O’Neill school has finally reached a settlement. The lawsuit aimed to integrate the school system in the Hartford area.

Elizabeth Norton Sheff filed the lawsuit in 1989 on behalf of her 10-year-old son Milo. He is now a 43-year old-grandfather.

What does the settlement offer Hartford students and does it achieve the original goals of the lawsuit?

Tom Kuser speaks with two attorneys attached to the case, Martha Stone, a former lead attorney in the original lawsuit and the founder and Director of the Center for Children's Advocacy at the University of Connecticut, and Scott Garosshen, a lead plaintiff’s attorney and an Associate with Horton, Dowd, Bartschi & Levesque.

TOM KUSER: We begin our conversation with Martha Stone. She was the lead attorney in the original lawsuit. She's been connected with it ever since. She's also the founder and director of the Center for Children's Advocacy at the University of Connecticut.

MARTHA STONE: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me to participate.

KUSER: Certainly, would you share with us to begin with the circumstances that led to the original lawsuit in 1989?

STONE: Thirty-three years ago, we were concerned about the segregation of the Hartford school system. And we came up with a legal theory to challenge it. At that time, the federal courts had said you had to show intentional discrimination, and we knew we couldn't show intentional discrimination. So we came up with a new legal theory to bring this under the Connecticut constitution, because the Connecticut Constitution has a unique provision that a lot of other states don't have, which is a guarantee to equal educational opportunity. So we came up with a legal theory, and then we went to the community in Hartford and they said, “No, we don't really want to do this case, we're not ready to file any kind of big lawsuit.”

So we backed off for about a year. And then in 1988, the mastery test scores were instituted in Connecticut, and all of a sudden, everybody looked at the mastery test scores in Hartford and said, ”Oh, my goodness, you know, the kids can't read. We're at the bottom of the bottom in terms of the state performance levels. It's time to do this lawsuit.” So that was the background upon which we decided to bring the lawsuit.

KUSER: How did the Sheff family become involved in the lawsuit?

STONE: Well, once we decided to bring the lawsuit, John Britton and I — he was Professor of Law at the University Connecticut law school at the time — went to a lot of different community meetings. Because if the community wasn't going to be behind us we weren't going to bring this case. So we went to meetings with the NAACP and other community groups and Elizabeth Sheff happened to be at one of those meetings, one of those original community meetings. And she just became one of the most articulate people to express outrage about why we needed this lawsuit. And so we recruited her to be the named plaintiff.

KUSER: Jump ahead to 1996, and we see that the Connecticut Supreme Court did issue a decision connected with the case, attempting to provide equal education across the board, regardless of where someone went to school. But that did not resolve the issue. You had to go back to court, right?

STONE: Yeah, after the Supreme Court made its decision in 1996, we went back six times, trying to get more magnet schools trying to get more participation in the Open Choice Program. So at the very beginning, it was really slow going. And then it got a little bit of a kick start once different commissioners came on. And then ultimately, we got this recent settlement.

KUSER: And in this new settlements, the state promises to create more access to magnet and suburban schools for Hartford students. What do you think of the settlement? What's your perspective on this?

STONE: Well, when we started the case, back in 1989, there were no magnet schools. There was one little fledgling program in a funeral parlor. That was a performing arts half-day program. It wasn't even a school. And now all these years later, we have 41 magnet schools. We have thousands of kids going to the Open Choice Program in the suburban districts. The most important goal that we had when we started this case was to ensure that every Hartford student that wanted to quality integrated education would have that access. That's the achievement of this latest agreement because all these years, we never had that guarantee, we never had a plan and we never had funding to back up the plan. And so that's the most important piece of this latest agreement.

KUSER: Did you expect the lawsuit to go on this long when you filed it back in 1989?

STONE: No, you know, it was disappointing for a lot of years at the beginning, we actually went back to court to force compliance, and we lost a hearing on the compliance early on, I think, within the first five years of the agreement. And then it's just taken a long time, mostly because it's been based on a voluntary process. So in other words, the suburbs are not mandated to participate. And so that part has been very frustrating. And very disappointing, I would add.

KUSER: Why do you think there was so much resistance to the idea of integrating schools in the Hartford area?

STONE: There's a lot of reasons for that. Over the years, we've discovered a lot of reasons. Some reasons have to do with concerns by the suburban districts that Hartford students would affect their test scores and bring the district down in terms of the rankings. Another issue is that sometimes some of the Hartford students come with some special needs. And the suburbs feel like they're not getting enough money to help get staff to support some of those special needs. And some of it has been some racism that has occurred in some of the suburban districts when they post signs like, you know, don't come to our district. Some of it has been based in racial discrimination.

KUSER: In reports about the settlement from the Connecticut Mirror, Elizabeth Horton Sheff is quoted as telling the judge that the prospect of the case ending brought back for her some of the same emotions that she experienced the first time she left her son in school. And the quote is, “and I just want to say, please take care of my baby, I'm giving you my baby.”

Does the settlement offer you a sense of closure here?

STONE: No. Because the settlement requires that the state meet demand, there is a 10 year permanent injunction. And we have to do a lot of close monitoring. And we have to hold the state accountable to what they agreed to in this agreement, and the Legislature has to provide a sustainable funding mechanism for the magnets to exist. So there isn't closure yet. Not to mention that the Legislature still has to approve this settlement agreement. So you know, the judge gave tentative approval, it has to go to the Legislature. And then it has to go back to the judge to put his final signature on. And then the 10 years starts, and then we have to monitor it closely. And we have to make sure that the state is meeting that demand because if the demand exceeds capacity as outlined in this agreement, the state has to come up with some other ideas about capacity.

KUSER: Then I'm hearing you say that this is not the end of an effort to integrate the school systems around Connecticut.

STONE: Not yet, not yet.

KUSER: Attorney Stone, thank you so much for your time and your insights about Sheff v. O’Neill today we appreciate it.

STONE: Sure.

KUSER: Attorney Martha Stone was a lead attorney in the original Sheff v. O’Neill lawsuit and has been connected with a suit ever since 1989. And she is the founder and director of the Center for Children's Advocacy at the University of Connecticut.

In the settlement, the state promised to create more access to magnet and suburban schools for Hertford students. We're joined now by Scott Garosshen, a lead plaintiff's attorney in Sheff v. O’Neill and an associate with Horton, Dowd, Bartschi & Levesque and he'll fill us in on some of the details. Attorney Garosshen, welcome back.

SCOTT GAROSSHEN: Thank you. Good to be here.

KUSER: How long have you worked on the case?

GAROSSHEN: So I started working on the case, actually, when I was a law clerk at this firm back in 2014. And when I became an associate, Wesley Horton, who argued the thing at the Supreme Court back in 1996, brought me on and I've been with it ever since.

KUSER: Could you fill us in a bit as far as what's in the settlement? I mentioned, it's supposed to create more access to magnet and suburban schools for Hartford students. Can you fill us in a bit more?

GAROSSHEN: Absolutely. So the core commitment of the settlement is that Hartford minority students who want a seat at a quality integrated school, get one. meeting demand has been the core piece of this since day one from the plaintiffs perspective. And what this settlement does is it creates plan and funding and an enforcement accountability mechanism to do that. So the magnet seats are going to be expanded, the funding to do that ramps up starting from around $1 million this year, and ramping up to I believe it's $20-$30 million towards the end of it.

And there's two components, there's both the magnet seats and the open choice expansion. So for open choice, that's the suburban schools, accept students from Hartford into their schools, and they're paid to do this. The settlement increases the amount of money that the suburban schools get for that as an incentive. One thing I do want to note is the program of a voluntary desegregation remedy, which is ultimately what this is, does require people to buy in. And that has been, I think, a core issue throughout this litigation, which is that we can provide as many schools as we can but at the end of the day, there is an onus on the individual towns surrounding Hartford to participate, and to view racial integration as something that is good for them.

You know, I say this, partly because I grew up in Glastonbury. And I attended a racially segregated high school and middle school and elementary school. And one thing that I have been encouraged by over the past couple years is in the wake of the tragedy of George Floyd's murder, and a number of the civil rights movements that we've seen, there have been protests and demonstrations in places like Glastonbury and other places in Connecticut. What I sincerely hope, and what I will certainly be fighting and working to ensure is that those are more than just words.

KUSER: Given the need for buy in, then does this decision really address the goal of integrating the education system as intended in the original lawsuit?

GAROSSHEN: I think it does. Again, this is something that I mean, certainly, there are plenty of people far smarter than I who are on this case, and who have been fighting the battle for desegregation since the very beginning. Kara McClellan at the NAACP, LDF Deuel Ross, Martha Stone, Dennis Parker. They've all been with us. And I think part of the reason why we all think that this is going to work is because, number one, the magnet schools have been very successful. When the state has created those seats, people have felt them, their quality schools, their schools that people like. There's a reason why we get folks from the city, folks from the suburbs. A good chunk of the funding in the settlement is going to expand capacity at the magnet schools. So that's something that we know works, and that we're building off of. So that I think is one piece of why this is going to be a successful plan. The second piece of it, frankly, is the accountability. So one thing that this settlement does that's new, an additional thing is it really increases the transparency. So members of the public who are investors who do believe that racial desegregation and integration matter can actually see what progress is being made, what the state has been doing and what remains to be done and can get involved in a way that I don't know was accessible in the past.

KUSER: I should note that the settlement isn't final just yet.


KUSER: It has to be approved by lawmakers, I believe, and then there's a final sign off from the court. Right?

GAROSSHEN: That's exactly right.

KUSER: Any roadblocks that you perceive in these final couple of steps.

GAROSSHEN: Certainly we hope that Governor [Ned] Lamont was very positive at the press conference and Attorney General [William] Tong was as well. I think we all view this as an investment in two things that matter. One being racial integration, long overdue. And the second being education, which, you know, there's two kinds of fiscal conservatism, right? There's, you buy a $1 bottle of water because it's $1. And then there's you buy a 20-pack for $5. Technically one cost less, but the other one's really more responsible. And I think education is that in a nutshell, right? We invest in our kids. And there are so many ripple on effects that come from that.

KUSER: You have a unique perspective on this, I think, because you're younger than some of the attorneys who work on the case case.

GAROSSHEN: I’m younger than the case.

KUSER: You're younger than the case and you attended schools, as you pointed out, in the greater Hartford area growing up. So from that perspective, and as an attorney connected with the case, do you think this settlement adequately addresses desegregation in schools in Connecticut?

GAROSSHEN: It's not a whole solution. I want to be clear about that. Any desegregation effort is multifaceted. And I neither want us to get stuck on the idea that if something's not the full solution in itself, we've solved racism, that it's not worth doing. Because I see a lot of people in my generation get discouraged in that respect, where they see efforts fail that they perceive as being full solutions. And so sometimes, I think it's easy to just sort of walk away and say, well, never mind. But this is a giant step forward. And I do want to say that, you know, when I first got involved in this case, it was in the context of the state trying to walk back the racial desegregation, and let the schools start to resegregate. That was where we were in the process when I first got involved.

And now we're at a point where the state is willing to step up and meet demand. And that's tremendous. And certainly, this is the shaft region, right? It's a model for the rest of the state, but it doesn't on its terms affect the rest of the state directly. And that's how litigation works, right? You have individual plaintiffs and individual legal provisions that provide a specific remedy. And then it's on us, as residents of Connecticut, whether we want to take that and run with it, or just let it sit.

KUSER: The fact that this case Sheff v. O'Neill appears to be settled just about… that doesn't necessarily preclude then other lawsuits perhaps in other parts of the state. As you point out, this could be a model. But if it's a buy in situation, maybe that's not going to happen so easily. This would preclude other lawsuits along the same lines, then.

GAROSSHEN: That's correct. The two obvious points are: one, if there is in the course of the 10-year supervisory jurisdiction term for this settlement, a material violation of the terms by the state, we can go right back to court to enforce that. And the state and the plaintiffs agree that that sort of accountability is good. And as part of why we were able to tell Judge Berger that this was a settlement that truly did meet the goals of Sheff. The second piece, as you note, is we've got a whole state here, and this is one part of it. So certainly more lawsuits like this can be brought. I think, to the extent that there's a legislative solution — before any litigation — that's often the best. But what we've seen historically is for civil rights, a lot of times you've got to sue somebody. And Elizabeth Horton Sheff was, I think, a real pathbreaker in realizing that something needed to change. She's been with us since the very beginning. Her son Milo was, I know this has been talked about before, but he was in elementary school when this case was first filed. And that was a few years ago.

KUSER: And today he's a grandfather, I believe.


KUSER: It's quite some time. Yeah. So yes, there's definitely room for more.

Attorney Garosshen thanks so much for your time today and your insights about this landmark case Sheff v. O'Neill, we appreciate it.

GAROSSHEN: Thank you so much.

KUSER: Scott Garosshen is a lead plaintiff attorney on the Sheff v. O'Neill case.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.