Equity & Diversity

How a Federal Office Investigates and Resolves Discrimination Complaints Against Schools

By Eesha Pendharkar — August 16, 2023 7 min read
The U.S. Department of Education, in Washington, D.C., pictured on February 21, 2021.
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A Wisconsin district that discriminated against a nonbinary student was ordered to offer grade adjustments and training to staff and students. A Georgia district that removed books about LGBTQ+ characters and racial minorities agreed to conduct a school climate survey and act on students’ responses. And a California district that failed to protect students from sexual harassment has to revise its policies, administer a school climate survey to students, and train teachers in Title IX.

These are all agreements that public school districts have made in the past few months with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights after the federal agency investigated complaints it received about discrimination based on race or sex.

OCR enforces several federal laws that prevent discrimination on the basis of age, disability status, national origin, race, or sex in schools and higher education institutions that receive federal funding. It does so by investigating complaints it receives alleging civil rights violations at schools and colleges.

OCR handles thousands of civil rights complaints every year. In 2022, it received almost 19,000 complaints of discrimination, the largest number ever. (However, more than 7,000 of those were from one individual.) It also resolves thousands of complaints each year.

A civil rights complaint can take months or sometimes years to be resolved, but it can mandate districts to take steps to rid educational environments of discrimination if OCR determines that the district has violated students’ or staff members’ civil rights.

“I really want to be sure that every student in every school understands that OCR will be there to protect their rights if needed,” said Education Department Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon, who heads OCR.

“If a student is harmed, we will take steps necessary to make sure that that harm is fully redressed.”

What is OCR and what does it do?

The office for civil rights within the U.S. Department of Education is charged with upholding federal laws aimed at ensuring students have equal access to education. Its primary role is to safeguard the rights of students and staff through the investigation of possible violations of civil rights laws, according to the OCR website.

It also develops guidance to help school districts and colleges understand the laws it enforces and their obligations under those laws; offers technical assistance on students’ rights and schools’ responsibilities; and collects data on discipline, restraint and seclusion, and bullying in schools.

OCR investigates complaints sent in by individuals or organizations that allege discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age in public schools, and coordinates with districts to address violations it finds in its investigations.

If investigators find that a student or staff member suffered discrimination, it can require that districts make any changes necessary, including altering policies, offering staff and student trainings, and conducting school climate surveys.

The office can also withhold federal funds from an educational institution, or refer a complaint to the Department of Justice.

Who can file an OCR complaint?

Anyone can file an OCR complaint for discrimination they believe they have faced on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age. People can also file complaints on behalf of someone else who might have been discriminated against. Complaints can be filed against public schools and most private and public colleges and universities. The only requirement is that the institution in question receives federal funding, according to OCR’s website.

Organizations can also file OCR complaints on behalf of students or staff, something that groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) do frequently.

Someone who files a complaint on behalf of someone else is responsible for getting that person’s written consent, so OCR can investigate. That includes when a parent files a complaint on behalf of a student over the age of 18, according to an Education Department spokesperson.

If the complainants are already pursuing a lawsuit about the alleged discrimination, OCR does not investigate.

What kinds of discrimination does OCR investigate?

OCR enforces complaints of discrimination based on factors including age, color, disability status, national origin, race, and sex—all of which is prohibited under federal law.

Discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin is prohibited by the Civil Rights Act. This includes discrimination based on someone’s race or appearance, their limited English proficiency or English learner status, or ethnic characteristics such as someone’s use of a hijab or turban.

Sex-based discrimination is one of the most common reasons for OCR complaints. This category includes discrimination based on pregnancy, parental status, and sex stereotypes, such as treating people differently because of their gender presentation or sexual orientation. Discrimination against nonbinary and trans students on the basis of their gender identity is also considered a violation of Title IX, Lhamon said.

OCR also investigates complaints of discrimination against people with disabilities and discrimination on the basis of age. Over the past 20 years, complaints to OCR over discrimination due to disability were the single largest category, according to Pennsylvania State University researchers who studied complaints over two decades.

What laws does OCR enforce?

OCR enforces six laws banning various kinds of discrimination. When the agency finds evidence that school districts discriminated against students, it sends them a letter explaining which laws they’re violating, and the proposed resolution. The laws are:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin;
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex;
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability;
  • Age Discrimination Act of 1975, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of age; and
  • Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act, which prohibits discrimination against the Boy Scouts or youth groups in public schools.

When and how can someone file a complaint?

Anyone wanting to file a complaint can contact one of OCR’s 12 enforcement offices with jurisdiction over different states nationwide to obtain a complaint form, or file using the online complaint form. Complainants can also send emails or letters to OCR enforcement offices.

Complaints of discrimination have to be filed within 180 days of the last act of discrimination, according to OCR’s website. If the complaint involves matters prior to that time frame, the complainant may be able to request a waiver. OCR will ask the complainant to “show good cause” for the delay in filing the complaint.

A complainant does not need to have a lawyer to file a complaint, however, if they have one, OCR will only communicate with the lawyer, according to the complaint form.

OCR resolves thousands of cases every year, according to annual reports about cases the office is investigating. The agency’s goal is to resolve 80 percent of its cases within six months, according to Lhamon. However, the department did not respond to Education Week questions about its current average resolution time and whether it’s met the 80 percent benchmark.

What does OCR do after receiving a complaint?

OCR evaluates every complaint it receives to determine how to respond, a department spokesperson told EdWeek. Responses can include seeking additional information from the complainant, opening a complaint for investigation, offering mediation between the complainant and the target of the complaint, or dismissing it.

The office has to begin by evaluating whether it can investigate a complaint for each allegation it makes. To be eligible for investigation, a complaint has to allege a violation of any of the laws OCR has legal authority to enforce, and be filed on time.

OCR will then inform the complainant and recipient of its intent to investigate and, after fact-finding and interviews, either can find insufficient evidence or a preponderance of evidence to support the discrimination complaint.

The office will then either resolve a complaint with a resolution agreement that holds its recipients accountable to make changes OCR mandates. It can also offer a resolution agreement to a district or college before the investigation concludes. If the recipient does not agree to a resolution agreement, or if they don’t comply with its terms, OCR can refer the case to the Department of Justice for judicial proceedings.


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