Student Well-Being

Civil Rights Office Reflects on Discipline, Bullying, Violence Issues

By Nirvi Shah — November 28, 2012 6 min read
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A new progress report of sorts out today about the activities of the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights during the Obama administration details the very active agency’s work on school discipline practices, harassment and bullying, sexual assault and violence, among other issues.

The office for civil rights maintains that minority students are disciplined more harshly and more frequently than other students, “resulting in serious, negative educational consequences, particularly when such students are excluded from school.” One analysis of data collected by the agency from the 2009-10 school year found that one in six black students was suspended out of school at least once that school year.

The OCR’s own analysis, the progress report notes, found that African-American students represented 18 percent of students in the 2009-10 data, which encompassed about 85 percent of public school children in the United States, but they also represented 35 percent of students suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once, 39 percent of students expelled, and 36 percent of the students arrested on public school grounds. “As in all cases,” the report says, “data alone do not constitute a violation of the civil rights laws, but large disparities in the rate of disciplinary sanctions imposed on students of different races give rise to concerns about the school environment and, in some cases, possible discrimination.”

Some have criticized the office for civil rights as being overzealous. A flurry of letters to districts, skyrocketing numbers of investigations into issues such as school discipline practices, the treatment of students with disabilities, and the treatment of English-language learners mark Assistant Secretary Russlynn H. Ali’s tenure. The office’s reach into schools’ discipline practices, in particular, has been characterized by some as overreach, including by former attorneys who worked in the office.

In all, the agency said it received received 28,971 complaints from 2009 to 2012, more than in any previous four-year period in its history. More than half of them concerned disability issues. The OCR said during that time it also closed 28,577 complaints, which it said is a record.

From 2009 through this year, the OCR launched 20 proactive investigations in school districts with significant racial disparities in discipline based on data from the 2009-10 school year. One of those, in Oakland, was completed earlier this year and resulted in a litany of steps the school district must take to address issues the civil rights office raised. In the report released Wednesday, OCR said it has received more than 1,250 complaints brought by parents, students, or others concerned about possible civil rights violations involving school discipline systems.

Looking closely, the OCR said during some of its “disparate impact” investigations, it found that:

  • In one high school, for example, two students with similar discipline histories were found to have engaged in “Unauthorized Use of Electronic Devices.” A white student was assigned detention for using headphones after having been told repeatedly to put them away. An African-American student, however, was assigned a one-day suspension for using a cell phone and iPod.
  • In a middle school, two students, also with similar disciplinary histories, were punished for inappropriate language. A white student who said, “Shut the **** up,” was assigned lunch detention. An African-American student, on the other hand, who said, “Suck my ****,” was suspended for one day.
  • Two students engaged in a pushing incident with each other at school, and a security officer took them to the office. Although the students had similar disciplinary histories, the white student received three days in-school suspension, while the Native American student was arrested by the police and received a 10-day out-of-school suspension.
  • In another case, school administrators used their discretionary authority to impose harsher punishments than the student code normally called for on African-American students as compared with similarly situated white students, with a frequency that statistical analysis showed was virtually impossible to have occurred by chance. In one instance, an African-American kindergartner was given a five-day suspension for setting off a fire alarm, while a white 9th grader in the same district was suspended for one day for the same offense.

In addition, the office for civil rights said, students with disabilities are often disproportionately disciplined in comparison to classmates without disabilities. The 2009-10 data showed that students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended out of school as their peers without disabilities. And from 2009 through 2012, OCR received more than 1,000 complaints alleging disability discrimination concerning discipline.

Sex Discrimination

Another area of the office for civil rights’ jurisdiction is the prevention of discrimination based on sex. The agency said that over the last four years, OCR has received 4,138 Title IX complaints and launched 37 proactive large-scale compliance reviews and directed inquiries. (This is the 40th anniversary of the Title IX law.) Of those, OCR received more than 120 complaints relating to sexual violence and launched 11 proactive investigations on sexual violence in the last four years. In addition, the agency issued guidance about how schools should handle cases of sexual violence, stating that schools must go beyond leaving the cases to be dealt with by the criminal justice system.

OCR also received 59 complaints related to pregnant and parenting students, but athletics-related concerns dominated the Title IX complaints the agency received.

Bullying, Harassment

Perhaps more than any other issue, the agency has garnered attention for its work on bullying and harassment issues, backed by attention to the problems from the White House.

OCR issued a letter of guidance to school districts over the handling—or lack thereof—of bullying and came down hard on several districts, including Tehachapi, Calif., and Anoka-Hennepin, Minn.

Students experienced bullying and harassment based on their sexual orientation, race, and whether they have disabilities. Over the last four years, OCR received over 1,600 complaints involving racial or national origin harassment, more than 1,100 complaints involving sexual or genderbased harassment, and nearly 1,500 complaints of disability harassment. During the same period, OCR launched 12 proactive investigations to address harassment.

Examples of what the agency found:

  • White high school students dressing in “hip-hop” attire and referring to one of homecoming week’s dress-up days as “wigger day.”
  • High school students publicizing “Kick a Jew Day” on Facebook and other social media, kicking Jewish students and making anti-Semitic remarks and gestures to them, including Nazi salutes. OCR found the bullying in this case to be harassment on the basis of national origin based on perceived ancestry and ethnicity.
  • In one case, a teacher allegedly bribed a student with candy and money and inquired about which students were homosexual, and locked another student in a classroom and sexually assaulted him.
  • At one school, parents alleged that their child with cerebral palsy, scoliosis and ADD, who weighed only 65 pounds, was bullied and harassed by classmates at middle school and on the school bus. They said he was kicked in the legs in the cafeteria, intentionally hit in the head while playing dodge ball, and hit with bottles at a pep rally. As a result, the parents removed the child from school to homeschool him.

While the report is something the civil rights office must provide, it also may serve as a sort of swan song for Ali, the assistant secretary overseeing the civil rights office. Or will she stay on for another four years?

UPDATE: Indeed, I just learned that in a phone call with stakeholders Wednesday, Ali said she would indeed be stepping down effective this week. Read more at the Learning the Language blog.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.