African American boys who are suspended at double and triple the rates of their white male peers. English language learners who, for years, remain in separate classes, falling behind their peers and scoring poorly on standardized tests. Disabled students and those with illnesses who are shortchanged at school because of their impairments.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights received nearly 7,000 complaints this fiscal year, an 11 percent increase and the largest jump in at least 10 years, according to data provided by the department. The increase comes as the office proceeds with 54 compliance reviews in districts and institutions of higher education nationwide, including cases involving disparate discipline rates and treatment of students with disabilities.
Why the spike?
Russlynn Ali, director of the Office for Civil Rights, said the reason for the increase in complaints is unclear, but believes students, parents and administrators have more faith that officials will take action.
Gerald A. Reynolds, head of OCR for the Bush administration from 2001 to 2003, said the increase is more likely a reflection of the different approach taken by Democrats–with Republicans running the civil rights office as a law-enforcement shop, and Democrats focusing on social change.
At the Christina School District in Delaware, 71 percent of black male students were suspended in a recent school year, compared to 22 percent of their white male counterparts, Ali said.
Zero tolerance policies, which enact harsh punishments on everything from swearing to weapons or drug possession, have been widely instituted. Critics say they are ineffective and a one-size fits all solution, and are partly to blame for the growing disparity between white and black discipline rates and a school-to-prison pipeline for those punished.
Ali said that in some cases, administrators do not know they are discriminating.
“There’s not a superintendent or a school official or a teacher that I’ve met anywhere that says I go to work every day wanting to violate students civil rights,” Ali said. “The problem is in far too many cases they actually don’t understand what their responsibilities are.”
In Boston, the Department of Justice and the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights investigated the treatment of English language learners, and found that thousands of students who qualified for specialized instruction guaranteed under federal law were not receiving it. As a result of a settlement, 4,300 students who were improperly identified as non-English language learners will be offered language services.
Under federal law, English language learners must be provided with alternative services until they are proficient enough in English to participate meaningfully in mainstream classes.
In Alabama, 10 districts are under investigation to determine whether or not students with disabilities are being discriminated against by having a shortened school day based on transportation schedules.
Three institutions of higher education are also under review, including Ohio State University, where authorities will examine the school’s response to incidents of sexual violence involving students on campus.