Elizabeth Horton Sheff was planning on a quiet evening at home in 1989 when her friend asked her to represent her at a meeting about problems in the Hartford public schools, in which her 10-year-old son Milo was enrolled. Students were grades behind in reading levels and diversity was lacking across the board.
The lawyers who ran the meeting focused on how the de facto segregation was allegedly causing these problems. They wanted to sue the state to force it to integrate the schools, and the lawyers tapped Sheff and her son as compelling plaintiffs to make their case.
Their effort resulted in the landmark decision of Sheff v. O’Neill, which resulted in a desegregation order by the Connecticut State Supreme Court in 1996.
Sheff led an intimate discussion in the Dwight Hall library on Saturday about the case, school desegregation in Connecticut, and her own life.
The case, which was assumed by many interest groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, used the right to education as outlined in the state’s constitution to argue that the de facto segregation throughout Connecticut was hurting school children.
When Sheff and 17 other plaintiffs — all parents suing on behalf of their children enrolled in Hartford public schools — initially took action, 74 percent of eighth graders in Hartford public schools lacked basic reading skills. Over the last 13 years, however, progress has been made. Sheff said some of the case’s effects are already evident, such as the success of the magnet schools in Hartford and New Haven.
“New Haven’s magnet program is excellent,” Sheff said, adding that both cities’ magnet programs now have waiting lists.
Despite this, Sheff said, more progress needs to be made.
“We will maintain ‘Sheff’ as an active lawsuit,” she said. Settlement negotiations with the state are ongoing, though the current government might hinder their progress, Sheff said.
“What frustrates me is that it has been 13 years on something so obvious,” Sheff said.
Sheff discussed some particular solutions to the problem of school segregation. She said busing is an effective way to integrate Connecticut schools. Sheff added that she preferred the term was “interdistrict travel,” admitting that busing had taken on a negative connotation in integration cases.
“It’s not the ride,” Sheff said. “It’s what’s at the end of the ride.”
The theme of community activism permeated her talk and her discussion with audience members.
“I’ve been able to put my faith in action,” Sheff said. “The struggle is going to always be the struggle.”
“I always have faith that people will do the right thing,” she said.
Sheff also spoke about how she became active in local politics and why it she felt it was important to do so. She served on the Hartford City Council for over a decade, first as a member of the Democratic Party and then of the Green Party. Sheff is now the council’s majority leader.
“If you don’t get into the system, you have no opportunity to change the system,” Sheff said. “I’ve had fun over the years thoroughly raising hell.”