Rising Number of Civil Rights Complaints in Schools Spark Congressional Action

Since the commencement of the Israel-Hamas conflict last autumn, two of the nation’s primary civil rights organizations have held differing views. The Anti-Defamation League, known for combating antisemitism, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, presented contrasting perspectives on the challenges faced by Jewish and Palestinian students as incidents of antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiments surged on university campuses.

Despite their divergent viewpoints, both organizations concur on one fundamental issue: they agree that the federal office responsible for investigating discrimination complaints in educational institutions lacks the necessary resources to tackle the increasing number of reported incidents.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR), a division of the Department of Education, documented a record number of complaints in the previous fiscal year, as indicated in its recently disclosed annual report. In fiscal year 2023, the office received 19,201 complaints, which represented a 2% uptick from the prior year’s peak of 18,804 complaints.

The OCR, which received flat funding from Congress in fiscal year 2024, has experienced a continual loss of personnel over the years with inadequate recruitment efforts to replenish the staff. The agency reported that the annual number of complaints it handles has tripled since 2009, while the average count of full-time employees has decreased by approximately 70 during the same period.

“The office experienced severe cuts,” remarked Miguel Cardona, the education secretary, at a recent gathering of education journalists.

Concerns have been raised by external parties that the increased pressures on campuses resulting from the Middle East turmoil have stretched the OCR to its limits.

As legislators in Washington debate the next annual budget allocation for the agency, it remains uncertain if the recent uproar on Capitol Hill regarding the surge in campus antisemitism might influence the conservative approach of many Republicans. Some members have advocated for potentially abolishing the entire federal Education Department.

While congressional lawmakers hold varying views, civil rights organizations are unanimous in their belief that increased funding is imperative for the office.

“Is it beneficial to provide additional funding to this agency? Absolutely,” affirmed Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR’s national deputy director.

In a statement to USA TODAY, Lauren Wolman, the director of government relations at the Anti-Defamation League, echoed the urgency of addressing the agency’s backlog.

“The OCR cannot effectively safeguard the rights, security, and well-being of students without adequate resources to adequately investigate and respond to the escalating caseload,” Wolman emphasized.

Understanding the Function of the Office for Civil Rights

Any student or staff member at a K-12 school or college receiving federal funding is eligible to submit a complaint to the Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, if they encounter discrimination they believe violates the law. The office, comprising attorneys and other specialists, enforces a number of federal anti-discrimination statutes, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

OCR staff, including those at regional offices nationwide, evaluate the complaints to determine if further investigation is warranted. If sufficient evidence is found, an investigation is initiated. Upon confirming a violation, federal officials engage in negotiations with school administrators to reach a resolution.

For example, in May, the department resolved a complaint with the Redlands Unified School District in Southern California, regarding the school’s inadequate response to reported sexual assaults involving students and employees. As part of the agreement, the school committed to revamping its compliance procedures.

Schools that resist cooperation with civil rights investigations may face the loss of federal funding, and the matter may be referred to the Justice Department.

Persistent Challenges Over Time

The long-standing struggle between escalating workloads and staff retention has persisted for decades within the office.

In 1981, the OCR boasted approximately 1,100 full-time employees and received less than 3,000 complaints. Contrastingly, last year, the office operated with just 556 full-time staff, nearly half the previous count of employees. Meanwhile, complaint volumes have surged by over six times the average number recorded in the 1980s.

“We urgently require additional support to ensure our ability to investigate the cases before us,” Cardona stressed before lawmakers at a congressional budget hearing in early May.

The Biden administration has proposed an approximate $22 million funding increase for the OCR in fiscal year 2025. This increment would fund 86 additional full-time personnel, with 90% focusing directly on handling discrimination complaints.

The administration’s budget request indicated that the OCR received 145 complaints related to discrimination based on shared ancestry in the first quarter of fiscal year 2024, surpassing the total from the three previous fiscal years combined.

Minor Uptick in Disability-Related Complaints

The most recent report highlights a slight rise in disability-related discrimination complaints over the past year, increasing from 6,467 to 6,749.

The growing dependence on the OCR to champion the rights of students and staff with diverse needs stems from the historical neglect by states to ensure school districts comply with the law, stated Denise Marshall, a disability rights advocate and CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.

“The states have failed in their obligations,” she emphasized.

With many school districts revising their budgets amidst the conclusion of federal pandemic relief funds, the availability of support staff for vulnerable students may be even more constrained in the upcoming years.

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Continual Issues with Title IX

The Office for Civil Rights plays a pivotal role in the Biden administration’s revision of Title IX, the legislation prohibiting sex-based discrimination in federally funded educational programs.

Latest Title IX updates:Biden enacts rules to enhance protections for sexual assault victims, LGBTQ students

During his 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden vowed to amend the Trump-era Title IX guidance, which critics argued favored individuals accused of sexual misconduct. Despite a prolonged timeline, Biden’s rule modification was finalized in April, with specific safeguards for transgender athletes still pending codification by the administration.

A new set of regulations expanding the rights of LGBTQ students and personnel is scheduled to take effect on August 1, preceding Biden’s potential reelection by a few months. Several Republican-led states have already contested the updated guidelines in court.

In-depth analysis:A vanishing LGBTQ center on college campuses was not an isolated incident.

Brian Dittmeier, the public policy director at the LGBTQ education advocacy organization GLSEN, highlighted the swift escalation of Title IX litigation at the state level as underscoring the federal government’s crucial role in safeguarding queer and trans students and staff.

“The challenge doesn’t primarily come from unsupportive communities, but from administrators and authorities,” he emphasized.

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