State of Civil Rights in American Schools

State of Civil Rights in American Schools

A mandated annual fiscal report and a public summary report presenting the current state of civil rights protection in American schools and colleges were released December 8, 2016 by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR has the task of "Protecting our students' civil rights is fundamental to ensuring they receive a high-quality education" (Press Release, U.S. Department of Education). The reports show there was a tremendous increase in complaints of civil rights violations in schools in 2016, especially when compared to the number received in 2009, which was 6,364 compared to 16,720 for 2016. Of the 16,720 complaints taken in 2016 by the OCR, 8,625 were resolved, according to the reports.

1. The objective of the OCR is to protect equal access to equal education free from discrimination in accordance with Federal civil rights laws: "to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation's schools." Barriers to equal access to educational excellence can come in the form of discrimination based on disability, sex, race, color and national origin. These broad categories comprehend a full range of discriminatory barriers to equal education. For example, the category of race, color and national origin includes the educational barrier of having a primary home language that is one other than English.

The state of civil rights for students in American schools and the complaints arising from violations can be illustrated by any randomly selected case of civil rights violation, investigation and resolution such as occurred in the De Queen School District--having five schools from Kindergarten through 12th grade--in De Queen, Arkansas. A complaint was filed (in 2009-2010) asserting that limited English language proficiency was presenting a barrier to equal access to and effective participation in education in De Queen School District.

Upon investigation by the OCR, it was found that while the Home Language Survey (HLS) for determining whether a student has a primary home language other than English (PHLOTE) was being used to identify students with a PHLOTE--of whom there are 1,244 identified, more than half the district population--the District provided the test in only English and Spanish, without providing translations for low incidence language minorities. The total population of De Queen School District is 2189. Of these, 709 are White, 87 are Black, 1337 are Hispanic, 9 are Asian and 47 are Native American, according to OCR documents. Supplementary to the Home Language Survey test, teachers are tasked with the responsibility of observing students for indicators of limited English language proficiency in reading, speaking and writing. OCR's resolution letter(2012) confirmed that the district had failed in its responsibility of providing the Home Language Survey test in translation for low incidence language minorities.

John B. King Jr., the U.S. Secretary of Education, on the occasion of the reports' release stated that "Much progress has been made in the past eight years, but much work remains to ensure all children enjoy equitable access to excellence in American education." Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, added that there has been "palpable progress toward realizing the promises Congress has made ... to our nation's students that their educational experiences should be fundamentally equal" yet that OCR "investigations confirm ongoing need to safeguard those rights." According to the Office for Civil Rights publication, "Achieving Simple Justice," the OCR under the Obama administration has resolved 66,000 civil rights in education cases out of 76,022 complaints received.

The two reports, the annual fiscal report titled "Fiscal Year 2016: Securing Equal Educational Opportunity, Report to the President and Secretary of Education," and the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights public summary report titled "Achieving Simple Justice: Highlights of Activities, Office for Civil Rights 2009-2016," are publicly available along with the data collected and data analyses.

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