Keyes v. School District No. 1

Denver Public Schools, serving District 1, currently consists of 207 schools teaching more than 90,000 students across the county. For more than 15 years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, Denver was still practicing segregation in its school district.


DPS, then Denver County School District No. 1, was promoting de facto segregation by enforcing a number of practices intended to separate students including “attendance zones and mobile classrooms units” serving Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood, which primarily consisted of affluent white residents. Park Hill residents were also notoriously unwilling to sell property to an increasing number of black families who were trying to purchase land in the area after WWII. 

The superintendent of the school board in April 1969 put forth a plan to desegregate the district’s public schools by integrating bus services. The superintendent who put forward this plan was immediately replaced, and the new superintendent canceled the integration plan as one of his first acts in the position.

Within weeks of the plan’s cancelation, a number of black and Hispanic parents in 1973 filed a suit against the school district. The parents asserted the district’s inner-city schools were notably inferior to the amenities and curriculum offered to Park Hill students and the district court found the assertion to be accurate. The case, Keyes v. School District No. 1, went from the district court to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1972. By summer of the following year, a 7-1 Supreme Court decision forced the school district to immediately desegregate. 

DPS tried to reject the claim saying even if District 1 was actively segregating, that doesn’t prove the rest of the schools in the area were also at fault. DPS also argued its “neighborhood policy” was specifically neutral toward race, while it acknowledged the specific policies listed in the suit were actively in practice across the board.

The plaintiffs relied primarily on the intent of these policies to prove their point. Prosecutors pointed out the attendance zones policy allowed DPS to more actively control the concentration of certain races in the “core” city area, which would then keep other schools in the broader area, like Park Hill, predominantly white. Park Hill schools were specifically proven in the course of this case to be de facto segregated.

The majority Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice William Brennan, said “where, as in this case, a policy of intentional segregation has been proved with respect to a significant portion of the school system, the burden is on the school authorities (regardless that their ‘neighborhood school policy’ was racially neutral) to prove that their actions as to other segregated schools in the system were not likewise motivated by a segregative intent.”

Brennan’s opinion in this case gave clarification on the issue of de facto segregation. Where the previous rulings addressed specific segregative practices that rested on the notion of “separate but equal,” the Keyes case was critical in defining the type of segregation that was often practiced in areas where overt segregation was observed less frequently. The opinion sent a simple message to schools still practicing segregation: Nothing was an acceptable excuse for school segregation in the post-Brown v Board of Education America. 

The implications from this case encouraged schools nationwide to go through policies with a fine-tooth comb to ensure compliance with the 14th Amendment. Where the implied burden of proof was originally on the plaintiffs in segregation cases, the Keyes ruling made it clear that intentional policies, even if they were outdated or older, could cause a legal maelstrom for noncompliant school districts. 

– Jess Brovsky-Eaker

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