Civil Rights Complaints Against Schools Spike to Record High

Education Department says more people are speaking up because they believe feds will help now.

By Julianne Hing Oct 14, 2010

The Department of Education’s complaint box is filling up. The AP reported Tuesday that the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights is receiving a record number of complaints–7,000 this fiscal year–from people who say that students’ civil rights have been violated.

The complaints mark an 11 percent increase from the previous year, the largest jump in at least a decade.

What are folks complaining about? Harsh discipline and zero-tolerance policies that are meted out in unequal measures for black, Latino and white students. Kids with special needs who aren’t getting the right services. English language-learners who either languish in segregated classes for too long, or aren’t getting the help they need.

The DOE is currently conducting 54 compliance reviews of school districts and higher education institutions. The investigations are intended to figure out whether school districts have policies in place to protect students, and whether those policies are being implemented and enforced. This May, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that he was reviving the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights to begin investigating violations in schools. He said at the time that the investigations wold focus on the higher rates of discipline of students of color, and racial disparities in college-prep courses in certain high school.

School districts that are found to be breaking the law could lose federal funding if they don’t shape up, the DOE said earlier this year.

And families were clearly listening. The Office of Civil Rights director, Russlynn Ali, told the AP she thinks people are reaching out to the DOE in part because they believe the administration will take action to protect students.

Investigations are easy to start, but holding schools accountable may be much harder. The DOE has said that it will consider turning to the Department of Justice to take legal action against school districts that break the law. The department has in fact shown it is willing to act: Earlier this year, the DOJ ordered a Mississippi school district to stop allowing its students to segregate its high schools.