O.C.R. Head To Focus on Monitoring Compliance

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Assistant Secretary Michael L. Williams has promised that the Education Department's office for civil rights will place a higher priority on monitoring compliance of schools and colleges where civil-rights violations are found.

In releasing his "enforcement strategy" for the current fiscal year, Mr. Williams last month also reiterated his intention to focus the agency's energies on a list of controversial issues that civil-rights advocates say were considered "off limits" by the Reagan Administration.

Mr. Williams had said in August that he would like to focus on ability grouping that results in segregation, the treatment of children whose native language is other than English, racial harassment in educational institutions, and school policies toward pregnant teenagers. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

The document released last month included three more priorities for the fiscal year: sex discrimination in athletic programs, racial discrimination in college admissions and financial-aid programs, and "appropriate identification" of special populations of children, such as "crack babies" and homeless children, for special education.

Although the strategy document called for targeting discrimination in financial aid, it did not specifically mention Mr. Williams' controversial statement, made at about the same time last month, that college scholarships available only to students of a particular race are illegally discriminatory. The Bush Administration subsequently moved away from that stand after it spurred a firestorm of criticism from civil-rights and higher-education groups. (See story, page 1.)

In the fiscal year that begins next October, Mr. Williams said, he plans to focus on the overrepresentation of minority students in special education, sexual harassment of students, school-assignment practices that result in segregation, race discrimination in student discipline, and equal opportunity for minority and women students to participate in science courses.

Mr. Williams said the o.c.r. would pursue these issues by issuing policy statements and providing guidance and training to its enforcement staff, publicizing its policies and investigations and offering assistance to schools and colleges, and focusing its compliance reviews on those themes.

In the past, he said, compliance reviews--probes initiated by the agency without a specific complaint--were launched mainly at the discretion of regional-office staff members. In the future, however, they will be focused on priority issues as set by the central office.

The strategy document stresses the need to devote more agency resources to monitoring "corrective-action plans" in cases that have been settled with agreements under which the institutions involved promise to correct violations.

Monitoring activities, the document says, have the same high priority as complaint investigations, and "are not to be reduced in order to carry out any other regional activity."

The o.c.r. has frequently been criticized for failing to ensure compliance with such agreements. For example, a group of parents in Tucson, Ariz., has asked a federal judge to force compliance with a 15-year-old anti-discrmination agreement between the local school district and the o.c.r. that, the parents contend, the agency has done nothing to enforce. (See story, page 16.)

The enforcement strategy also promises that the o.c.r. will:

Continue to meet deadlines set by a federal judge many years ago for investigating complaints, despite the dismissal of the judge's order last year.

Consider shifting responsibility for certain states among regional offices to equalize their workload, as well as "restructuring" the Washington staff.

Issue policy statements on parental-choice plans, on a "case-by-case basis," that "define the civil-rights responsibilities" of districts and state agencies implementing such programs.

Publicize the agency's policy on attention-deficit disorder. The issue became prominent last year when some advocates tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Congress to specifically define the disorder as a handicapping condition eligible for special-education aid under the Education of the Handicapped Act.

The o.c.r. determines on an individual basis whether the disorder constitutes a handicapping condition triggering protection of civil-rights laws, according to the strategy document.

Issue internal guidelines defining when a complaint can be resolved by persuading the school or college to take corrective action before a violation is formally noted--a practice that has been criticized by civil-rights advocates.

Establish a quality-review process to examine the investigatory and monitoring work done by the agency's regional offices and the effect of o.c.r. policies on that work.

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