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E.D. Offers Reasons for Lag In Civil-Rights Enforcement

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Washington--Obstacles both within and beyond the control of the office for civil rights delay resolution of discrimination complaints against schools and postsecondary educational institutions, according to the Education Department (ed).

Difficulties ranging from vagueness in allegations of bias to legal complexities in particular cases often have prevented the office for civil rights (ocr) from meeting court-ordered timetables for enforcing anti-discrimination laws in education, according to a report submitted this month to Judge John H. Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Judge Pratt had ordered the Education Department to complete the study of its handling of civil-rights complaints by June 1 to support the department's claims that current timetables are "unworkable." Under a 1977 court order, ed is required to conduct compliance reviews and to investigate and resolve complaints or begin enforcement proceedings within 210 days.

To identify specific problems responsible for the agency's failure to meet the deadlines, the department's study closely analyzed a sample of 200 complaints closed by ocr in fiscal year 1980 and the first three quarters of fiscal year 1981, 80 complaints that remained open as of August 31, 1981, and 78 completed compliance reviews.

For the same time periods, the study also measured ocr's "processing times" for all complaints and reviews--5,077 closed complaints, 1,706 unresolved cases, and 275 completed compliance reviews.

'Vague and Contradictory'

Among the problems beyond ocr's control are "vague and contradictory allegations by complainants," "difficulty in contacting complainants," uncooperative or delayed responses from the institutions involved, and the involvement of other government agencies, according to the report.

An assortment of management problems, however, are "within ocr's purview and can be addressed," says the report. These include assigning cases to inexperienced staff members, staff conflicts, and "indecision/confusion as to proper handling or resolution of case."

Heavy workloads and decisions to extend negotiations when they are expected to resolve a complaint also contribute to delays, according to the report.

In complaints that involve more than one kind of discrimination (e.g., allegations of race and sex), especially those involving elementary and secondary schools, the complexity of legal and factual issues frequently results in "unpredictable variability in case processing times."

In addition, states the report, a conflict may arise between "the thoroughness and equity with which the law must be applied under a federal statute" and meeting the fixed deadlines set forth by the court order. "Several problems within ocr's control can be traced to the attempt to achieve quality standards in case processing."

In a hearing before Judge Pratt last March, Education Department officials had argued that the deadlines did not provide sufficient time to resolve complicated complaints and that they hindered the ocr's ability to negotiate voluntary settlements, which they contended were more efficient and more likely to result in good-faith efforts to correct discriminatory practices.

Lawyers for the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Women's Equity Action League, and the National Federation for the Blind, among other groups, have charged that ed was failing to enforce federal laws that bar discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and handicap in schools, colleges, and universities with programs receiving federal financial assistance.

The 1977 timetables were established by a court-ordered agreement (known as the adams/weal order), after lawyers for the civil-rights groups brought suit against the then-Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Last March, Judge Pratt, in finding that the department had violated the agreement, gave parties to the suit until Aug. 15 to agree upon "workable" timetables, and he ordered ed to complete its report so that its findings could be used in negotiations.

Wide Variations

The report describes the wide variations in the time ocr has required to process cases, depending on the nature of the bias complaint, the type of institution involved, and the region of the country. The document suggests that these variations "should be a major factor to be considered in developing new time frames," but it does not propose specific changes.

Because of the variations, the report states, "it may be difficult at this time to propose time frames which are guaranteed to be accurate and realistic." Although the Education Department study included all categories of complaints handled by ocr (sex, race, handicap, national origin, age, and multiple categories), 81 percent of ocr's case load consisted of handicap-, race-, and sex-bias cases. "The percentage of handicap cases (44 percent) exceeds all other categories and is higher than the sum of the race (19.2 percent) and sex (17.9) categories,'' says the report.

In both open and closed complaints, "the percentage of elementary and secondary cases is double the percentage of postsecondary cases."

Among the closed cases at the elementary- and secondary-school level, the "average processing time" was 153 days for complaints of racial discrimination, 154 for complaints of handicap discrimination, and 166 days for complaints of sex discrimination. Among the open cases involving elementary and secondary schools, complaints of sex bias were the oldest, an average of 878 days, followed by "multiple basis" complaints, an average of 493 days old. Complaints of race bias were an average of 406 days old, and handicap bias an average of 277 days old.

The average processing time for compliance reviews was 395 days for elementary and secondary education, 236 days for postsecondary education, and 539 days for vocational rehabilition institutions.

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