Under the Connecticut Constitution and Connecticut Statutes, all school-aged children in Connecticut are entitled to equal educational opportunities no matter their race, ethnicity, or class background. The Sheff v. O’Neill complaint of 1989 specifically pointed out that the state was not holding true to its constitution. Instead of having the opportunity to their right to equal education, the Sheff plaintiffs (and other Hartford schoolchildren alike) were being deprived of an equal education to suburban school-aged children. The Sheff plaintiffs argued that poor and minority students living in Hartford were isolated from suburban and upper class students based on their racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic differences. Simply put, both of these groups of students were being deprived of a cultural and social education by being isolated from each other. The Sheff plaintiffs argued in favor of integrating suburban and urban students so that lessons might be learned from one another that could positively affect their work experiences in the future.
The plaintiffs on this case were made up of seventeen schoolchildren (5 Black, 6 Puerto Rican, and 6 White). Representing them were their parents, Elizabeth Sheff (one child), Pedro and Carmen Wilda Bermudez (three children), Oscar and Wanda Melendez (two children), Virginia Pertillar (one child), Rosetta Hughley (two children), Denise Best (one child), Adria Laboy (one child), Karen and Leo Harrington (two children), Eugene Leach and Kathleen Fredrick (two children), and Carol Vinick and Tom Connolly (two children). With a common goal to provide their children with equal educational opportunities, the plaintiffs of the Sheff v. O’Neill case went forward with the lawsuit against Governor William O’Neill, the State Board of Education (7 members), the Commissioner of Education of the state of Connecticut, the Treasurer of Connecticut, and the Comptroller of the state of Connecticut. The Sheff plaintiffs claimed that the above listed defendants were not doing their job in giving children in the Hartford Public Schools district an equal educational opportunity, and saw that these underprivileged children were not given an adequate chance to merely perform at grade level on the Connecticut Mastery Test. (Sheff Complaint)
Up Close and Personal with Plaintiff Concerns
Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the primary plaintiff involved in this case expressed that wanting to be part of this case as a way to stand up for her community. In an Interview Sheff said, “I’m fully committed to ensuring that there is access to quality, integrated education for those people who want it… Sheff is voluntary, you don’t have to participate” (Sheff Interview). Personal experiences made the decision for Sheff to be a plaintiff in this case difficult. Often Sheff’s friends and family were offended by the case and thought they did not need to be “sitting next to white kids” (Sheff Interview). To Sheff, however, it was much broader than a black student sitting next to a white student, it was also learning in an integrated environment with students who were very different while still learning the same things.
In an interview, Denise Best expressed her experiences with the Hartford School System. Her daughter Neiima Best had been “deemed gifted” but would have had to attend a school where “only 11% of the children were reading on grade level” (Best Interview). In wanting the best for her child, Denise Best took a stand on bettering her child’s education through joining the Sheff movement.
Analyses taken from 1987-88 have shown that of the approximately 25,000 students in the Hartford Public School district, 90.5% of them are in the ethnic minority. Other suburban school districts ranged from approximately 2-30% in minority students. Interestingly the percentage of minority staff was significantly higher in the Hartford Public Schools District (approximately 33%) than surrounding suburban school districts (approximately 0-5%). Data from the same period also showed fewer racial and ethnic minorities held teaching positions in the suburban school districts compared to Hartford. These statistics supported the plaintiffs’ argument that racial isolation (or segregation) pervaded the school system at all levels.
Ultimately, the reasons for the 1989 Sheff complaint were the state’s inadequate efforts to provide equal educational opportunities to school-aged children living in impoverished circumstances and single-family households. Furthermore, Sheff plaintiffs argued that the state did not provide these students with a minimally adequate education due to their race, ethnicity, and to a certain extent, their geographical location (a poor city).
The Broader View
The Sheff movement was one that was widely known across the country as the breakthrough in educational equality. The goal of integrating urban and suburban schools was felt throughout the country; however, the Sheff v O’Neill complaint was the starting point for this revolution of magnet schools and the Project Choice program. The Sheff movement set out to, through winning this case, prepare children to live in a society and country that is ethnically, economically, and socially diverse. To Sheff plaintiffs, their children would become prepared through learning in an integrated setting, mixed with urban and suburban students, to take on life.
Bermudez, Wildaliz and Eva. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation by Anique Thompson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, June 30, 2011. Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).
Best, Denise. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill (with video) by Anique Thompson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, August 10, 2011. Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).
Lauren A. Wetzler. Yale Law & Policy Review , Vol. 22, No. 2 (Spring, 2004), pp. 481-524. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40239617
Sheff, Elizabeth Horton. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill (with video) by Candace Simpson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, July 28, 2011.Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).
Sheff Movement: Quality Integrated Education for All Children. About Sheff v. O’Neill. http://www.sheffmovement.org/index.shtml.
Sheff v. O’Neill complaint (Connecticut Superior Court 1989). Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu)
Harrington, Leo and Karen. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill (with video) by Anique Thompson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, June 27, 2011. Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).
Leach, Eugene. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill, with video, by Anique Thompson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, June 7, 2011. Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp/).