School & District Management

Civil Rights Office Expands Its Reach Into Schools

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 14, 2011 8 min read

In the 21 months since U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stood on an iconic bridge in Selma, Ala., and pledged to aggressively combat discrimination in the nation’s schools, federal education officials have launched dozens of new probes in school districts and states that reach into civil rights issues that previously received little, if any, scrutiny.

The office for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education has opened 74 “compliance reviews” in states, school districts, and higher education institutions since March 2010. That’s when Mr. Duncan used the occasion of the 45th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday"—the day peaceful civil rights demonstrators were bludgeoned by Alabama state troopers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge—to announce his promise to reinvigorate the civil rights office.

The issues targeted for investigation in the new reviews—which are initiated by the civil rights office—are more complex than in the past and less focused on procedures, according to Russlynn H. Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights, who was appointed in 2009 to head up the OCR.

For the first time in its history, the OCR is examining graduation rates at a community college. Fourteen of the OCR’s current reviews are focused exclusively on gauging whether students have equal access to college-preparatory curricula, advanced courses, and other advanced-learning opportunities.

Nine reviews are digging into the disproportionate use of discipline against minority students. And two other reviews are delving into possible disparities in students’ access to charter schools, an issue that had not been examined by the OCR in the previous decade, Ms. Ali said. (The civil rights office declined to name specific districts where reviews are ongoing.)

Waiting for Contributions

The scope of those reviews—coupled with the rising number of complaints about civil rights violations coming from outside sources—has heartened some civil rights advocates who say the scrutiny is overdue. At the same time, it has made some local and state school officials wary about the federal government stepping onto their turf.

Selected Cases

These cases that have been resolved by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights since 2010 include:

English-language Learners
October 2011: In the Los Angeles Unified School District, local leaders agree to overhaul services for English-language learners and correct inequities in schools serving a predominately African-American student body.*
September 2010: Boston public school officials agree to changes to services for English-language learners, including hiring more teachers and providing staff qualified to work with ELLs. * (Review is ongoing.)
May 2011: Arizona education department agrees to replace its one-question, home-language survey used to identify ELLs with a three-question survey to ensure all eligible students receive services.

Students with Disabilities
September 2010: Chicago public school officials agree to provide adequate transportation services to students with disabilities. *
August 2011: Officials in New Jersey’s West Windsor–Plainsboro district agree to scrap requirements that parents provide medical documentation or prove discrimination before students with disabilities can be evaluated for services.
August 2011: OCR finds that officials in New Jersey’s Evesham Township school district illegally required the family of a child with autism to pay for services.

Racial / National Origin Harassment / Discipline
April 2011: In Owatunna, Minn., school officials agree to address harassment and disproportionate discipline of Somali-American students.

Sexual Orientation / Gender Identity
July 2011: Tehachapi Unified School District, in California, agrees to sweeping changes to how it handles sexual harassment and bullying after 8th grader Seth Walsh committed suicide.

* Denotes cases that were opened by an OCR compliance review.
All other resolved cases arose from a complaint.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

“They are being much more proactive on issues related to protecting [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] students,” said Shawn Gaylord, the public-policy director for the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. “We have clearly seen a new interest in this area, and we hope it will set the tone long term for the continued robust enforcement of the law.”

Said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Alexandria, Va.: “We are definitely seeing an increase in the number of investigations and reviews that are being done, but we don’t know yet in most cases what the resolutions are going to mean for school districts.”

Just a small number of compliance reviews initiated by the current OCR have come to a conclusion so far. Among the most notable: an agreement reached in October between the OCR and the 670,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District on overhauling the school system’s program for English-language learners and improving resources and learning opportunities for African-American students. And the OCR is about to open 29 new compliance reviews, Ms. Ali said.

Stephanie J. Monroe, who headed the OCR in the final three years of President George W. Bush’s administration, said the current focus on topics such as graduation rates, participation in college-preparatory courses, and access to charter schools was enabled in large part by new data that the OCR began collecting during her tenure.

“Those are important issues,” Ms. Monroe said. “I hope that if they are taking on more complex reviews that they are doing so in a way that isn’t a fishing expedition and isn’t a means to make a political statement. The reviews are intensive and expensive for all parties and can be very disruptive to the school districts.”

Starting a Probe

The Education Department enforces federal civil rights laws in the nation’s schools and universities by responding to specific complaints from parents, students, and civil rights groups. But it also pores over data from multiple sources to look for possible patterns of discrimination. That’s how Ms. Ali said her team has identified the issues to examine, as well as the targets for the current compliance reviews. Education Department staff members based in the OCR’s 12 regional offices take the lead in conducting the reviews through on-site visits to schools.

In recent months, the OCR has also moved aggressively to investigate violations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972—the provision that bans sex discrimination—using that part of the law to enforce protections of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, for example, and to ensure equal athletic opportunities for girls.

“We are doing what I believe the Congress always intended when the laws and regulations were written,” Ms. Ali said. “It’s a little bit poetic and ironic all at the same time because we often hear how OCR is doing so much that’s new. Those [areas we are looking into] may be new, but we are not expanding the laws to achieve that or creating new jurisdictions.”

As it conducts compliance reviews, the OCR is striving to provide technical assistance to schools and universities that are working to overcome some vexing issues, which also represents a break from previous efforts, Ms. Ali said. In the past year, the OCR has conducted 700 of what Ms. Ali calls “technical-assistance activities,” which include regional conferences for school officials to learn how to proceed when the OCR launches a review. The agency is also issuing guidance documents to clarify how schools and universities can stay in compliance with civil rights laws. That approach has helped the current OCR team close more cases through voluntary agreements.

“We have worked really hard to be at once a reinvigorated office and move away from sending a ‘gotcha’ message,” Ms. Ali said.

Francisco M. Negrón, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va., said districts do need help when it comes to implementing the federal laws and regulations that the OCR is enforcing.

“I’m glad to hear that there seems to be a recognition from the Department of Education now that they need to work with school districts,” he said. “That hasn’t always been the case.”

Federal Intrusion?

For school districts that have become the subject of an OCR review or complaint investigation, the experience can feel, at the very least, like an unnecessary intrusion.

In Durham, N.C., earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint with the OCR alleging that the district was violating federal law through a systemic failure to provide adequate communications to Spanish-speaking families whose children are enrolled in the district. The OCR opened an investigation into the matter, which also addressed individual complaints of discrimination against Hispanic students.

Julie D. Spencer, Durham’s area superintendent for middle schools, oversaw the district’s response.

“Quite frankly, we were well on our way to addressing the issues raised by the SPLC before OCR became involved,” Ms. Spencer said. “We want all of our families to be involved in our district, and where we found gaps in our services, we began moving to fix those. By the time OCR began outlining what steps we needed to take, we had already begun taking them.”

The district reached a voluntary resolution with the OCR last month, Ms. Spencer said, and will continue to be monitored through the 2012-13 school year.

The biggest challenge now, Ms. Spencer said, is paying for the services that the district must beef up to serve its Spanish-speaking families and providing cultural-sensitivity training to its employees.

Jerri Katzerman, the director of educational advocacy for the Montgomery, Ala.-based SPLC, sees the OCR’s intervention differently. It wasn’t until after the center filed its complaint with the OCR that the district got serious about improving services for non-English-speaking parents, she said. “They were not in complete denial about the concerns we raised, but we could only get a wishy-washy response from them,” she said.

Teaming Up

Not all civil rights advocates are ready to declare the current OCR era as a heyday for rooting out discrimination in schools.

Roger L. Rice, a civil rights lawyer who is the executive director of Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy, or META, in Somerville, Mass., is one.

Mr. Rice, whose organization focuses largely on English-language learners, gives more credit to the civil rights division in the U.S. Department of Justice for triggering high-profile investigations and forcing substantive changes on ELL issues. He cites the ongoing compliance review of the Boston public schools—being done jointly by the Justice Department and the OCR—as the most prominent example.

In that case, both agencies investigated the district for failing to provide adequate services and reached an agreement last year that is forcing the system to improve its programs for ELLs.

“You ask anyone in Boston about that investigation, and they will tell you it’s a Department of Justice thing,” he said.

Indeed, a hallmark of the OCR under Mr. Duncan has been its collaboration with the civil rights division in the Justice Department, a partnership that Ms. Ali said has “sent strong signals about the coordinated federal response on these very important issues.” Both divisions released new, more flexible guidelines this month on how districts, colleges, and universities may legally consider race when making decisions about school assignments, admissions, and other programs that are designed to increase diversity and reduce racial isolation.

A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as OCR Pace on Probes Quickens

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