Equity & Diversity

What Researchers Learned From Analyzing Decades of Civil Rights Complaints Against Schools

By Eesha Pendharkar — December 30, 2022 4 min read
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More than 40 percent of all public school districts have had a complaint filed against them with the Department of Education for an alleged civil rights violation over the past 20 years.

But large districts where Black students are disproportionately represented have a higher likelihood of having complaints filed, not just for racial discrimination, but also for violations of civil rights statutes that protect against discrimination based on disability and sex.

That’s according to a study by two Pennsylvania State University researchers published last month, which analyzed every single complaint filed with the Office of Civil Rights between 1999 and 2019.

The Office of Civil Rights, or OCR, is a federal agency that investigates complaints alleging discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age in public schools. The complaints process is one tool OCR uses to hold schools accountable, as well as reviewing national datasets on discipline and guidelines on discrimination.

About 10 to 40 percent of districts receive at least one complaint each year, according to the report. Many school districts have multiple complaints, many of which involve alleged violations of different civil rights statutes.

More recently, some conservative parent groups have filed OCR complaints against districts that have offered safe spaces for teachers or students of color, or for statements acknowledging that systemic racism and inequities exist in school districts. But for the most part, OCR complaints have been used in the past as a tool to seek justice from discrimination, according to the authors of the study.

“There are current efforts underway to use processes that have been historically about promoting the interests of minoritized communities that have been kind of used by folks in positions of power and privilege in ways that weren’t necessarily intended by the civil rights protections,” said Maria Lewis, an associate professor of education at Penn State and one of the authors of the report.

“But I think that in our data set, that likely comprises a smaller number of complaints,” Lewis said.

‘Interlocking forms of oppression and discrimination’

Complaints over discrimination due to disability are the single-largest category, according to 20 years of data. They are closely followed by complaints related to race and then sex.

Most districts that have complaints filed against them are large ones, and enroll higher percentages of Black students.

Those districts—which the researchers called highly segregated—are more likely to receive complaints about racial discrimination, disability-related discrimination, and alleged violations of Title IX, said Maithreyi Gopalan, an assistant professor of education and public policy at Penn State and co-author of the report.

“Seeing a relationship between racial discrimination claims, and other kinds of complaints emerging in school districts I think was a significant thing,” Lewis said. “That made me think a lot about interlocking forms of oppression and discrimination that occur in school districts.”

Large districts with a majority of Black students often face other systemic inequities, such as higher race-based discipline gaps, disparities in special education identification, higher grade retention, and reduced access to Advanced Placement and gifted and talented programs, according to past research.

So even though a discrimination-related complaint filed with OCR is not a violation, “our findings relate to the fact that discrimination is systemic and institutional in nature and that systems of oppression and discrimination are interlocking,” according to the report.

“These districts have several structural barriers that they face. And so the complaint process should be seen as a tip of the iceberg in terms of what is happening in those schools and school districts,” Gopalan said.

“I think we need a lot more research to be able to say anything more systematic about it, but the data points to these systemic barriers that some of these large school districts, and districts that serve predominantly Black populations, seem to face,” Gopalan added.

OCR’s effectiveness varies based on who is in the White House

The number of complaints filed and the speed and way in which they were resolved has varied over the past decade, coinciding with who was in charge of the federal government at the time. President Barack Obama issued guidance on racial disparities in student discipline, and that resulted in more complaints being filed, because people began to use OCR to highlight discrimination in schools, Lewis said.

“If guidance is rescinded, you may see less complaints around particular issues. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the civil rights issues that were a problem in the past are no longer present in the school district,” she said. “It just means that the enforcement mechanism is no longer in place.”

During the Obama administration, the systemic approach designed to address the root causes of discrimination meant OCR complaints took longer to resolve, according to the report.

But in the later years of the data, a large number of complaints were administratively closed before moving further into the process, coinciding with President Donald Trump’s administration, which aimed to close complaints as quickly as possible.

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