Office for Civil Rights: Why is it there and what does it do? | June 14, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - June 14, 2013

Office for Civil Rights: Why is it there and what does it do?

Federal law-enforcement agency works with school districts to eradicate discrimination

by Terri Lobdell

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is an agency within the U.S. Department of Education that enforces civil rights laws tied to federal funding of schools from elementary through post-secondary. Congress created the Office for Civil Rights in 1966 pursuant to passage of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination in public education on the basis of race, color and national origin.

Congress also passed Title IX in 1972 (prohibiting sex discrimination), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 (addressing disability discrimination), adding enforcement of these laws as well to the Office for Civil Rights' responsibilities.

The agency's mission is: "To ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights."

The Office for Civil Rights' basic message is that students cannot learn and thrive in school if they are being discriminated against. And because the federal government holds the purse strings, it has the power to set and enforce its anti-discrimination rules.

The Office for Civil Rights' enforcement approach can be affected by political winds. With the election of a Democratic president in 2008, the agency began a period of what it called "transformation" and "dramatic impact." In a 2012 report, the Office for Civil Rights described its renewed focus on outreach, education and more efficient handling of increased numbers of complaints and concluded: "Vigorous enforcement is critical to our nation's long-term prosperity: Fulfilling the promise of public schools in America helps us ensure a competitive workforce and maintain America's standing in the global economy."

The Office for Civil Rights now employs about 600 attorneys, investigators and support staff, with 12 regional offices across the country, including one in San Francisco. During the fiscal years 2009 to 2012, the Office for Civil Rights received 28,971 complaints total, a 24 percent increase over the previous four-year period. More than half of the complaints addressed disability issues, about one-quarter related to Title VI (race or national origin) concerns, and the remaining addressed sex and age discrimination.

In processing complaints, the Office for Civil Rights' goal is to work with the schools to achieve needed changes through agreement; it does not represent the person filing the complaint. Instead its role is that of a law enforcement agency. Any formalized agreement reached to address and correct "compliance concerns" found during an investigation is between the district (the "recipient" of federal funds) and the Office for Civil Rights.

According to Office for Civil Rights documents: "The potential for benefit of any investigation, be it complaint-driven or proactive, lies in the resolution. To generate the maximum sustained impact in each case, OCR collaborates with the institution ... to identify policies and procedures that need to be revised and training and orientation programs that need to be provided and to take whatever additional steps are necessary to identify and address the source of discrimination and empower and support the entire school ... community to eradicate it."

Despite the emphasis on collaboration, the Office for Civil Rights' resolution agreements with schools now include a standard provision "clarifying OCR's authority to continue monitoring until the institution is in full compliance with the law and to pursue legal enforcement if OCR finds noncompliance." According to the Report to the President, "Monitoring can be brief or last for multiple years." Until a school has shown full compliance with its agreement, the Office for Civil Rights is prepared and authorized to monitor for as long as it takes or resort to court action if circumstances warrant.

Of the 16,107 complaints received during the 2009 to 2012 fiscal years related to disability issues, a total of 1,513 alleged disability harassment. According to its 2012 report, and as explained in a 2010 "Dear Colleague Letter" laying out Office for Civil Rights policy in this area, "If an institution knows or has reason to know about student-on-student harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex or disability, it must take immediate and effective action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and, where appropriate, address its effects on the harassed student and the school community." (See online sidebar, "Discriminatory harassment and bullying.")

The Office for Civil Rights prides itself on efficient and timely resolution of a growing caseload. In 2012, it reported that 93 percent of complaints were resolved within 180 days of receipt and explained the different methods of closing: "Dismissal based on lack of jurisdiction, closure after the parties reach a mediated agreement through Early Complaint Resolution, or closure through a resolution agreement between the school and OCR, either before or after a finding of violation by OCR."

The Office for Civil Rights also provides frequent "technical assistance" presentations or support to schools or communities; from 2009 to 2012, it made more than 1,325 technical-assistance presentations to groups across the nation.

"This enables OCR's constituents to learn of their rights and responsibilities under the civil rights laws, thereby improving civil rights compliance without the need for enforcement activity," according to the agency.

On the evening of May 16, 2013, the Office for Civil Rights made a two-hour presentation to the Palo Alto community at Ohlone Elementary School, entitled "Know Your Rights," sponsored by several parent groups. The district initially agreed to sponsor the event but later pulled out of that agreement due to fears that the event would generate more complaints, according to emails between the Weekly and Superintendent Kevin Skelly. The PTA Council also declined to sponsor the event.

To protect the privacy and independence of its process in addressing issues with individual complainants and school districts, the Office for Civil Rights staff does not respond to any direct press inquiries. Press questions are handled instead through a U.S. Department of Education spokesman, who provides limited information about Office for Civil Rights' activities and nothing about ongoing investigations, except to confirm the existence of an investigation and the type of discrimination alleged.

Sources: U.S. Department of Education publication by the Office for Civil Rights entitled "Report to the President and Secretary of Education for FY 2009-2012"; and the Office for Civil Rights website.


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