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 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 spike?
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.
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.