Education Department Begins Dismissal of Civil Rights Cases

One disability rights advocate says the department notified her that 500 of her complaints were dismissed in recent weeks.
Published: April 27, 2018

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has begun dismissing hundreds of civil rights complaints under a new protocol aimed at clearing up a congested pipeline.

The protocol allows for the dismissal of serial filings or complaints considered too burdensome because of multiple targets, reports The New York Times.

One of the provisions of the new case processing manual, released last month, allows the office to dismiss cases that reflect “a pattern of complaints previously filed with O.C.R. by an individual or a group against multiple recipients,” or complaints “filed for the first time against multiple recipients that” place “an unreasonable burden on O.C.R.’s resources.”

Department officials say the new policy targets advocates who inundate the office with thousands of complaints for similar violations, filling its investigation pipeline with cases that could have been resolved without exhausting staff and resources within the department.

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Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, says the new provision is part of the office’s revision of its manual that outlines procedures for civil rights cases. The new manual is meant to help the office better manage its docket, investigations and resolutions, says Hill.

In March, 154 civil rights groups urged Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to keep the 2014 school discipline guidance established under the Obama administration, which clarifies that schools and districts are expected to treat all children fairly and provide practical tools and guidelines for educators to create safe and welcoming environments for all students.

“Rescinding the guidance would send the opposite message: that the Department does not care that schools are discriminating against children of color by disproportionately kicking them out of school and that the Department does not see itself as having a role in helping educators create and maintain safe schools that afford all students equal educational opportunities,” read the letter.

The letter also pointed out that suspensions and expulsions are used disproportionately against children of color, children with disabilities and LGBTQ youth.

Supporters and Opponents Speak to New Guidelines

Catherine Lhamon, who led the office under the Obama administration, says the new provisions undermine the mission of the Office for Civil Rights. While the Justice Department can pick and choose the cases it pursues, the Education Department is obligated to open a case if the office has evidence that a law has been broken.

“The thing that scares me is when they get to say ‘we won’t open some cases because it’s too much for us,’ or ‘we don’t like the complainant,’ or ‘it’s not our week to work on that,’ you start to change the character of the office,” said Lhamon.

In relation to handling civil rights complaints, the Obama administration was known for its strong enforcement and broad investigations but was also alleged to be overzealous and accused of leaving cases waiting for years.

Deborah Osgood, a lawyer who worked at the Office for Civil Rights for over 25 years and now consults with schools on civil rights, says the changes show that the agency was “essentially taking the reins back for control of its complaint docket.”

Osgood says in her experience with the office, one person could back up the pipeline, limiting investigators’ ability to respond to other filed complaints. Osgood recalls frustration from investigators who pride themselves on being able to promptly resolve complaints.

During the 2016 fiscal year, 41 percent of the 16,720 complaints came from three people. In 2017, 23 percent of the 12,837 complaints came from three people as well.

“In effect, it turned over the decision-making about how the agency would use many of its resources to a single individual, rather than to agency officials and staff charged with the responsibility for implementing the agency’s stated mission,” said Osgood.

Disability Rights Advocate Had 500 Cases Dismissed in Recent Weeks

Marcie Lipsitt, a disability rights advocate who the department refers to as a “frequent flier”, has filed over 2,400 complaints against schools, education departments, libraries and other educational institutions whose websites are unable to be used by those who are deaf, blind or struggle with fine motor skills.

Lipsitt says she files complaints on behalf of families “every week of the year,” reports Disability Scoop.

“No one even knew about this issue until I started filing,” Lipsitt said. “I didn’t want to get anybody in trouble. I just wanted to raise awareness.”

In recent weeks, Lipsitt received notice that more than 500 of her complaints, including active investigations, have been dismissed. The department cited the new provision as the reason.

Under the new guidelines, complainants are also no longer allowed to appeal if their case is dismissed by the office. According to Hill, this system was eliminated because the appeals process rarely results in a different outcome.

“There’s absolutely no check and balance system at the OCR for any errors that are made in the investigation of complaints,” said Lipsitt.

If a complainant wants to fight a dismissal, their only option would be to hire a private lawyer, which many families cannot afford, adds Lipsitt.

Lipsitt says she will continue to file complaints while she pursues potential legal avenues to change the new policies.

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