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The legacy of Sheff v. O'Neill

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.

Last monthThe Full Story spoke with Martha Stone, the lead attorney in the landmark lawsuit Sheff vs. O'Neill.  She gave us a legal update on what has happened since the settlement was announced last year.  Now TFS hostTom Kuser takes a closer look at the human impact of the settlement.  He speaks with the name plaintiff in the case Elizabeth Horton-Sheff.  She was one of a group of parents who filed the lawsuit on behalf of their children in an effort to make the Hartford School system more equitable. Ms. Horton-Sheff decided to join the effort after attending a meeting and hearing a statistic that deeply concerned her.

EHS: At that meeting, it was one statistic that really resonated with me that in 1989 79% of the children in Harvard's eighth grade, needed assistance with remedial reading. So let's just, you know, shred that out a little bit, is saying that 79% of the students in eighth grade of Hartford could not read to grade level. Now, if you're in eighth grade, and you cannot read at grade level, what are your prospects? So that to me was not the children failing. To me that said the system was failing that percentage of children. So I went back home and I talked to my all you have to kind of get a little background on my was my own was, it still is the son of a civil rights activist. So he was used to marches on Washington and candlelight vigils for persons living with HIV/AIDS and discussing the environment and food. But I did ask him if he wanted to attend the next meeting. He did. And then I asked him, did he want to sign up to be a plaintiff. So the public interest law agencies, had people sign up to be plaintiffs. We signed up. They chose 10 families. There was another round of interviews, and then they requested that Milo and B serve as the named plaintiffs. People seem to think that there was some egregious thing that happened to my child in particular, that made me want to sue the state. No, I just didn't get up one morning and say, "Oh, I have nothing to do today. Let's sue the state." But to me that one statistic hurt me, and resonated with me. And that's how I got into it not from my child, but from our children.

WSHU: Did you anticipate at all that some 34 years later, this would still be on the front burner, so to speak, a main topic of discussion?

EHS: Oh, no. And if you asked Milo, he would say he thought it would be like the Judge Judy episode, like 30 minutes done, right? I knew it was going to take some time. Because everything in the struggle takes time. Reaching and achieving justice takes time. But I wasn't at all aware that we would be where we are today. We've done a lot. There's so much more to be done. So to directly answer your question, No. I thought we would be in a different place right now.

WSHU: When we spoke to Attorney Stone recently, she told us that there's still work to do to ensure that the settlement is put into action. There's a ten-year permanent injunction that's currently underway, that has to meet certain benchmarks. Was this kind of settlement, was this something similar to what you had in mind back in 1989?

EHS: Well, the settlement in my opinion, this is my opinion, was a compromise in moving the big boulder somewhere, a little bit. I firmly believe that until we have a regional education system and not all of these little districts, what are we 128 fiefdoms, right? Until we have a regional school system, many of the issues, not only just racial diversity, but funding and transportation and supplies, and all of those things that are needed to actually provide our children with their constitutional right, right, because Connecticut is one of the few states in the nation that has in its constitution, the right to education. So until we address it on a regional level, we'll still be struggling with funding, and politics and politics should not be a factor in providing our children with the education that they need to grow up to be their full selves.

WSHU: I'm wondering what kind of an impact has the lawsuit and the aftermath, over the past 34 years, what kind of an impact has that had on your life and your family?

EHS: Oh, wow. That's yeah, it's been a journey. It's been a journey because this work has brought me to many spaces, some friendly, some hostile. You know, it's been a little bit of a struggle, and it's had some negative impacts on our personal life. A VHS, but would I do it again? Yes, I would do it again.

WSHU: We're speaking on Monday the 21st of August and you're about to embark on a new position the Alumni Specialist with Goodwin University magnet school system in East Hartford. Could you tell us about the work that you'll be doing there and how you see this connected with what's been happening again in the wake of the lawsuit Sheff vs. O'Neill?

EHS: Yes, I'm embarking on my fifth life. It is my fifth life as the alumni specialist for the Goodwin University magnet school system. And we're looking at this as a avenue to help folks understand the importance of quality integrated education, How one's life trajectory can be changed to being in an environment, an educational environment that promotes and accepts diversity? So I will be working with the Goodwin University magnet school system to start gathering those stories. We all know what they're doing when they're in school. We want to know what happens after. Was their life trajectory changed for the better? Can we have documented stories? And that's what we'll be pursuing, documented stories of life after being in the chef district and being in a chef school. So I'm excited. It's a blessing. It's just a pure blessing.

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.
Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including the founding producer of the weekly talk show, The Full Story.