Equity & Diversity

The Ed. Dept. Received the Most Civil Rights Complaints in History Last Year

By Eesha Pendharkar — May 08, 2023 4 min read
Protesters at the Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on March 29, 2023. This year, the office of Civil Rights received more complaints of Title IX violations, the federal law that protects trans students, than any other kind of complaint.
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The U.S. Department of Education received the highest ever number of complaints alleging civil rights violations in public schools in fiscal year 2022, but over 7,300 came from a single person.

That’s according to an annual report by the Office of Civil Rights, which received 18,804 complaints of violations in fiscal year 2022 (Oct. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30, 2022).

In comparison, OCR received 8,935 complaints in fiscal year 2021, and 9,719 complaints in 2020.

The office resolved 16,515 complaints in that same time period, some of which may have been filed in previous years. That’s also the second-highest number of resolved complaints in a year in its history, the report said.

However, the massive increase was primarily due to one individual, who filed 7,339 complaints alleging Title IX violations.

“It is genuinely an enormous increase in this most recent fiscal year, and frankly, in the fiscal year that we’re in now, we are on track to exceed that number,” said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for Civil Rights, who heads the OCR within the Education Department, in an interview with Education Week.

“I believe that the increased volume of complaints is responsive to an increased confidence in the public that the federal government will be there to redress civil rights. And I’m grateful that there is that increased confidence, and I am very worried about our capacity to meet the need represented in those complaints.”

The Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Education is tasked with upholding equal access to education, and enforcing civil rights in schools and colleges nationwide. It 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 issues found in its investigations. It can withhold federal funds or refer a complaint to the Department of Justice, according to The Atlantic.

OCR’s staffing levels have fallen even as the volume of complaints continues to increase. Over the past four decades, the agency has lost more than half of its fulltime employees, from nearly 1,100 in fiscal year 1981 to 546 in fiscal year 2022 as the number of complaints has generally grown.

Disability rights still remain an issue

Due to the individual who filed more than 7,000 complaints alleging Title IX violations, the ratio of complaints received is skewed this year, according to the report.

Complaints alleging Title IX violations comprised the highest portion of complaints with 48 percent, or 9,498 complaints, in 2022—up from 17 percent of all fiscal year 2021 complaints.

Complaints involving discrimination based on disability comprised 32 percent of all complaints last year, down from 48 percent in fiscal year 2021. Complaints about racial discrimination were the third most common, making up about 17 percent.

Over the past 20 years, complaints to OCR over discrimination due to disability were the single-largest category, according to Pennsylvania State University researchers.

Most school districts that have complaints filed against them are large ones, and they enroll higher percentages of Black students, according to the research.

(The researchers don’t use enrollment ranges to define large districts, they use a variable for enrollment in regression models.)

Those districts—which the researchers called highly segregated—are also more likely to receive complaints about other types of discrimination, such as racial discrimination, disability-related discrimination, and alleged violations of Title IX, according to the report.

One reason disability-related complaints may be higher than other types of complaints now is the lack of identification of and support for students with disabilities when schools were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic during 2020 and 2021, said Maithreyi Gopalan, an assistant professor of education and public policy at Penn State and co-author of the report.

That might be reflected in the increase in complaints this fiscal year specifically, she said.

But over the past two decades, access for students with disabilities in schools has had more federal oversight and monitoring than sex and racial discrimination, she said.

“Enforcement can really help improve access, and I think that’s really why we keep seeing a lot of those complaints,” Gopalan said.

Individuals filing mass complaints

The last time OCR had comparably high numbers, in fiscal year 2016, it was also because of the same single filer, according to past reports and Lhamon.

That year, the office received more than 6,000 complaints from that individual alleging discrimination in schools’ athletics programs. Those complaints similarly skewed the overall data to make Title IX violation allegations the largest area of complaints, accounting for 46 percent of all complaints received in that year.

OCR does not disaggregate data according to complaints filed by individuals and organizations, Lhamon said.

However, in fiscal year 2022, the overall number of complaints increased even after adjusting the data for the individual who filed thousands of them, according to Lhamon.

“Even taking those complaints out, the numbers exceed our traditional numbers,” Lhamon said. “And I think they reflect nationally, increased attention to civil rights, increased concern about students’ experiences in school.”

OCR should find a way to report these complaints separately to make sure they don’t skew the overall data, according to Gopalan.

“People working with this data should know that this is one person filing all of these cases, and to tie that together so that when we’re doing longer term trend analysis, we are able to treat them appropriately,” Gopalan said.

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