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L.E.P. Students' Access to Services a Policy Priority at O.C.R.

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Washington

As part of an effort to shed its decade-long reputation for lax enforcement, the Education Department's office for civil rights has launched a spate of investigations reviewing school districts' services for limited-English-proficient students.

Such students' access to educational services is one of the investigative priorities set by Norma V. Cantu, the assistant secretary for civil rights, and the probes are part of an effort by the O.C.R. to initiate more compliance reviews instead of merely reacting to formal complaints filed with the agency.

"I don't believe Congress created the O.C.R. to be a passive observer of civil rights,'' Ms. Cantu said in an interview. "L.E.P. students' fundamental right is to receive intelligble instruction. ... There is a vast need [for increased O.C.R. activity] because of the lack of attention paid in past years.''

Regulations and court rulings have established that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964--which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin--requires schools to provide L.E.P. students with the services they need to enable them to participate meaningfully in school.

In addition to a lack of attention by previous administrations, Ms. Cantu said, steady growth in the number of L.E.P. students in the nation's schools and the "greatly varying responses'' of states and districts in creating programs for them prompted the civil-rights office to make such issues a priority.

The Priority List

L.E.P.-related issues had been included on a priority list established in 1990 under the Bush Administration, but observers say that the office did not consistently follow through with investigations.

And James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, characterized the Reagan Administration's enforcement of Title VI as it applies to language-minority students as "worse than zero at certain periods of time.''

In fiscal years 1989 and 1990, the O.C.R. conducted only four compliance reviews of districts' services for L.E.P. students. Those figures rose to 12 in 1991 and 16 in 1992. Ms. Cantu was appointed by President Clinton during fiscal 1993, taking office last May, and the number of L.E.P. reviews done that year rose to 38. A spokesman said the agency has not yet collected statistics for the current fiscal year, but the total number of reviews is expected to be higher.

The targets of compliance reviews are determined based on complaints and the results of a biannual civil-rights survey.

When Ms. Cantu took over the O.C.R., the agency was devoting about 13 percent of its resources to compliance reviews and technical assistance, she said. This year, the agency plans to dedicate 40 percent of its resources to such activities.

Ms. Cantu said she plans to do this by revising the agency's complaint procedure to include mediation in the early stages, which would help resolve more cases earlier, thereby freeing up resources.

Large Districts Targeted

The L.E.P.-related reviews launched in the past year center on suspicions that districts have failed to identify students lacking English proficiency or to provide services to those who are identified.

The Oklahoma City schools and districts in Austin and Lubbock, Tex., are among the most recent districts to become the targets of L.E.P.-related reviews.

Jean P. Peelen, the acting director of the O.C.R. regional office in Dallas, said these efforts are the first in "a considerable while.''

She said the office chose large districts to review because she wants the reviews to "have an effect larger than just in the district itself.''

Santiago C. Sandoval, the director of L.E.P.-student services for the Ogden City, Utah, school district, said a recent compliance review in his district has had the desired effect in the region.

"People have been put on notice: You'd better have your house in order and make sure you're doing what you should be doing,'' he said, noting that the O.C.R. last reviewed the district a decade ago.

The Ogden schools were cited for inconsistency in identifying L.E.P. students, who make up about 12 percent of the district's enrollment of 13,000 students.

While the move toward more compliance reviews in this area may not be surprising, given Ms. Cantu's previous experience arguing for L.E.P. students' rights as a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, it is particularly significant for those students, observers said.

Many parents of L.E.P. students have trouble navigating the education bureaucracy to file formal complaints, because they do not speak English and do not know their rights, Mr. Lyons said.

"Certain populations are not good complainers,'' he said.

Of the roughly 5,000 formal complaints the agency receives a year, very few have to do with L.E.P. students, Ms. Cantu said. But she expects those numbers to grow with the agency's heightened visibility in the area.

Other enforcement priorities for the civil-rights office include targeting the overrepresentation of minorities in special-education programs, the underrepresentation of girls and minorities in advanced courses, and the abuse or misuse of testing and assessment, Ms. Cantu said.

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