The Impact of the Minneapolis Public Schools Desegregation/Integration Litigation on Native American Children

A prior post reviewed the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) desegregation/integration litigation from 1971 through 1977 while another post looked at that case from 1978 through 1983.

During this entire period the MPS had significant numbers of African-American and Native American students, and the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis attempted to recognize the different interests of these two groups by its May 1975 adoption of a two-tier formula for determining compliance with the court’s order for the desegregation/integration of the schools. At that time the court modified its order to require that no school could have more than 42% total minority enrollment and no more than 35% of a single minority group.

The issue of the impact of the court’s orders on Native American students came to the forefront in May 1978 in connection with a MPS semiannual report to the court requesting approval of a variance of up to 60% total minority enrollment for schools with heavy concentrations of Native American students.

Such a variance had been sought by Native American parents so that their children would not be forced to leave the new Andersen Elementary School in the southern part of the city, and a group of those parents appeared as amici curiae (friends of the court) in connection with the court hearing on that MPS semiannual report. Their attorney, Larry Leventhal, raised the legal argument that the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause did not prohibit such a variance because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition that Native Americans have a unique status in U.S. law derived from their tribal quasi-sovereignty.

As part of the MPS evidence supporting this variance, I put on the witness stand a MPS employee who was responsible for creating curricular materials that featured contemporary Native Americans who were successful in the broader culture. He was of Ogibwe heritage and testified to his being “a well-balanced schizophrenic” because he had one foot in his native culture and the other foot in the dominant culture.

Nevertheless, the court in May 1978 denied the MPS request for approval of this variance for Native American students. The court said it was “sensitive to the concerns of the School Board and amici that the special educational needs of Native American students be met and that concentration of [such] pupils may be helpful to the expenditure of [special federal educational funds].” The court also acknowledged that the Supreme Court had in certain cases allowed separate treatment of Indians, but distinguished those cases on the ground that the MPS proposed variance was not tied to tribal membership or any quasi-sovereign interests of particular tribes or reservations.[1]

The Eighth Circuit affirmed this ruling. It acknowledged that “in certain contexts separate classification and treatment of Indians as a race are constitutionally permissible in the light of the unique status of Indians in this country, and in light of history and policy.” This statement, however, was subject to this important qualification by the appellate court: “the Supreme Court has not held that a school district is exempt from its obligation to eliminate racial segregation ‘root and branch’ . . . simply because the district’s student population contains a substantial number of Indian students with specialized educational needs.”  Moreover, the Eighth Circuit upheld Judge Larson’s finding that these legitimate needs had been met by the district court’s past 35/42% and prospective 39/46% guidelines.[2]

When the MPS asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, its final argument was that the lower courts erroneously had determined important and federal statutory issues regarding the education of American Indian children.[3] The Supreme Court, however, denied review.[4]


[1] Booker v. Special School District No. 1, 451 F. Supp. 659 (D. Minn. 1978). This order also denied the MPS motion to terminate the case that was discussed in a prior post.

[2] Booker v. Special School District No. 1, 585 F.2d 347 (8th Cir. 1978).

[3] Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Special School District No. 1 v. Booker (No. 78-__ Sup. Ct. Nov. 10, 1978).

[4] Booker v. Special School District No. 1, 433 U.S. 915 (1979).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

2 thoughts on “The Impact of the Minneapolis Public Schools Desegregation/Integration Litigation on Native American Children”

  1. Larry Leventhal’s Participation in the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Desegregation Case

    The above post recognized that in 1978 Larry Leventhal participated in the case as the attorney for a group of Native American parents, amici curiae, to argue that the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause did not prohibit the School District’s proposed variance for Native American students because the U.S. Supreme Court had recognized that Native Americans have a unique status in U.S. law derived from their tribal quasi-sovereignty.

    Although Judge Larson and the Eighth Circuit rejected that argument, Leventhal was a skilled, well-informed and passionate attorney for his clients in that case. I recall pleasant conversations with him about these important issues.

    I was saddened to learn that Larry died on January 17, 2017. An article about him reported that he had “devoted his career to defending American Indian activists and their causes” and was widely regarded as “one of the foremost experts on Indian treaty rights.” Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement, said Larry “believed in the treaties, and thought the government should abide by them.”

    Minnesota’s Senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis recalled that Leventhal was “one of the finest constitutional lawyers in this country. He was a zealous advocate for all his clients, respectful to the court and to the opposing counsel. What we need is 1,000 more Larry Leventhals.”

    Furst, Larry Leventhal 1941-2017: Dedicated and disarming attorney was ardent Indian rights advocate, StarTribune at B1 (Jan. 18, 2017).

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