The Department of Education's Office of 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 increase?
Russlynn Ali, director of the Office of 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.
"The notion that we were stepchildren, that's a narrative that's being conjured up, but it was not the reality when I was there," Reynolds said.
Information on the reports was provided to The Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request. They highlight issues that, in some cases, have long been documented, like the disparate discipline rate between black and white male students, and in other cases are reflective of the new challenges facing schools, such as changing demographics and rising numbers of students with diabetes and food allergies, now considered disabilities.
"These are all cases that have to be resolved and systemic policy solutions put in place if we are going to protect every child's rights for an opportunity to learn," said John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and a former senior policy analyst for the Office of Civil Rights under the Clinton administration.
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.
The district has repeatedly been under the national spotlight for its strict enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy, going so far as to expel a third-grader whose grandmother sent her to school with a birthday cake and a knife to cut it. 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.
The compliance reviews will try to determine whether such policies are having a disparate impact — a different result on students of a particular race or gender — and if there is an educational justification.
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 of 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.The Boston School Committee, which oversees the city's public schools, also agreed to hire qualified language teachers, monitor the performance of ELL students and give parents the information they need to make informed decisions.
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.
That is the subject of one of a dozen compliance reviews regarding English language learners currently under way.
In Los Angeles, studies have shown that the majority of limited English students were born in the U.S., and that nearly 30 percent aren't placed in regular classes by the time they finish middle school.
"Far too many students languish, it appears, as English language learners for 10 years or more," Ali said.
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.
Associated Press writer Dorie Turner in Atlanta contributed to this report.