Christine Stuart photo
Elizabeth Horton-Sheff, mother of the lead plaintiff in the case (Christine Stuart photo)

It all started back in 1989 when Elizabeth Horton-Sheff attended a Hartford school board meeting to take notes. At that meeting Horton-Sheff said she learned that 74 percent of 8th graders needed assistance in remedial reading.

That startling statistic led to the landmark desegregation lawsuit Sheff v. O’Neill, which celebrated its 20 year anniversary Monday. 

“To me that number was not 74 percent of the students are failing, to me that was the system is failing 74 percent of our children,” Horton-Sheff said Monday at a Capitol press conference.

In 1996 the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the separate and unequal education system in Hartford violated the state constitution. Since then 21 regional magnet schools have been created with three more starting up this year. And this year some 16 percent of Hartford minority school children attended a school that is at or near the desegregation standard. Next year that number will climb to 24 percent.

Christine Stuart photo
John Brittain, one of the original attorneys in the Sheff case (Christine Stuart photo)

“Are we better off today then we were 20 years ago? I would say the answer is ‘yes’,” John C. Brittain, one of the original attorneys in the Sheff case, said.

“We have made tremendous progress toward our goal of achieving integrated and quality education, however, we still have much further to go,” Brittain said. “Our vision has been partially realized.”

The second phase of the Sheff settlement calls for greater coordination and analysis of the results. It also calls for a greater number, about 41 percent, of Hartford students to attend fully-integrated schools by 2013. The new five-year settlement agreement with the state says it must also satisfy the demand of at least 80 percent of Hartford parents who want to enroll their children in high-quality desegregated schools.

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said it’s not possible to quantify the cost of the second phase of the Sheff agreement, but it’s foolish of the state to demand higher participation in the Open Choice and magnet school programs without funding.

It seems one of the stumbling blocks in Sheff has been the number of Hartford students attending suburban schools through the Open Choice program. A recent survey conduct by the Sheff Movement, a grassroots coalition which builds support for the integration effort, found only 10 percent of the 1,000 respondents knew about the Open Choice program.

When asked why the cities of Bridgeport and New Haven were not included in the Sheff lawsuit, Brittain, said at the very beginning it was considered, but as a practical matter the idea was shelved.

He said what was different about Hartford was the commitment of the parents and the community to see through the lawsuit.

“It wasn’t a lawyer suit, it was a people suit,” Brittain explained. In all his years as a civil rights attorney Brittain said he’s never seen the steadfast dedication displayed by the Hartford parents who helped bring this lawsuit against the state.

Milo Sheff, Horton-Sheff’s son who was just 10 years old when the lawsuit was filed, is now 30 years old and runs his own music business.

Horton-Sheff said that she knew when Milo became the lead plaintiff in the case that the changes they were seeking would not benefit him.

“My child was never the focus,” Horton-Sheff said. “We did it for the thousands of children who have passed through those doors since the filing of this lawsuit, we did it for those who sit in the seats right now, we did it for those who are about to enter, those who are about to be born, and those who we hope to see succeed.”

Horton-Sheff described the lawsuit as a movement. “It is a movement in support of our children,” she said.

“Institutional racism is not dead,” Horton-Sheff said. “We must continue to work against it.”