U.S. Department of Education: Promoting Educational Excellence for all Americans

1995 Annual Report to Congress -- April 2, 1996

OCR Initiates Investigations in Serous Cases of Illegal Discrimination

Not all illegal discrimination can be stopped or remedied by responding to complaints that arrive from the public. Agency-initiated cases, typically called compliance reviews, permit OCR to target resources on compliance problems that appear particularly acute or national in scope. Targeted compliance reviews maximize the impact of OCR's limited resources and balance our enforcement program. Selection of reviews is based on various sources of information, including survey data and information provided by complainants, education groups, media and the public. In FY 1995, OCR resolved 178 agency-initiated actions, compared to 90 in FY 1994 and 82 in FY 1993.

The racially discriminatory overinclusion of minority students in special education classes is of growing concern to parents, educators and OCR. In Montgomery County (Alabama), for example, statistics and anecdotal information suggested that the school district disproportionately assigned minority students to classes for educable mentally retarded (EMR) students. While the district had as a criterion for placement in EMR that a student must score lower than 70 on an IQ test, OCR's investigation uncovered a pattern of placing African American students with IQ scores above that cutoff in EMR classes. The inappropriate placement of students in EMR can remove them from the core academic curriculum, and may lead to lower levels of achievement, decreased likelihood of postsecondary advancement and more limited employment opportunities. OCR has required the district to re-evaluate each decision to place an African American student in EMR and to make appropriate placements based solely on educational needs. African American students will be given any remedial assistance needed to bring them back into full participation in regular education, and to full opportunity for academic achievement.

A number of OCR-initiated cases target the needs of students who need to learn English in order to achieve access to educational programs and opportunities in the larger society. OCR found that some limited English proficient (LEP) students (particularly Southeast Asian students) in the Lawrence Public Schools (Massachusetts), for example, were not being served, that others were not adequately served, and the teaching staff was not adequately trained. Many LEP students were placed in special education programs segregated from other school programs. The in-grade retention and drop-out rates of LEP students were unusually high. Several linguistically identifiable schools were overcrowded and inferior to other schools. For example, one school with a 96 percent Hispanic enrollment had no library, limited recreation areas and overcrowded classrooms. The school was rodent-infested.

As a result of OCR's intervention, the district agreed to meet the needs of LEP students and to provide staff training to ensure teachers are qualified in second language teaching methods. Lawrence also agreed to provide transitional bilingual education or English as a Second Language to all LEP students and provide interpreters so that parents can more fully understand and make decisions concerning the educational needs of their children. The district is committed to proper referral, evaluation and placement of students who may need special education. School facilities and resources will no longer be influenced by the racial or ethnic composition of a school's student enrollment. These actions are expected to improve educational opportunities for more than 3,400 LEP students.

Other OCR-initiated cases target the overinclusion of LEP students in special education. In the Union Free School District of the Tarrytowns (New York), for example, a disproportionate number of Hispanic students were placed in special education. OCR reviewed whether the district's special education program, including the pre-referral, referral, evaluation, and placement of students, violated Title VI or Section 504. The evidence indicated that the district enrolled a large number of new immigrant students, many with little or no prior educational experience. School staff acknowledged difficulty in evaluating these students, especially in distinguishing educational deprivation and English language proficiency from learning disabilities. OCR found that evaluations were not conducted timely because Union Free employed only one bilingual psychologist. The district was using an invalid screening instrument. Hispanic students also were placed in self-contained special education classes for longer periods of time than their non-Hispanic classmates. The district is now remedying each of the identified violations. These actions are expected to increase educational opportunities for the more than 700 Hispanic students in the Union Free district, including the 134 students currently receiving special education services.

OCR also targeted illegal racial harassment (as defined under Title VI) in some schools and universities. The resolution of such cases often highlights the value of strong working relationships between OCR and schools. In Edmonds County (Washington), for example, OCR planned to investigate allegations of severe racial harassment at one high school. Early in the investigative process, a longer-term cooperative venture developed for solving racial and ethnic tensions in the entire school district. Edmonds County now has a plan in place that has strict rules for punishing harassment. However, Edmonds also established, on a voluntary basis, a curriculum that will address intergroup relations, intercultural communication, stereotyping, and peer mediation.

Teachers will be trained in teaching tolerance and student leaders will conduct equity workshops. The partnership has allowed Edmonds and OCR to save substantial time and resources as well as help teachers, parents and students create a safe and disciplined environment for learning.

OCR in FY 1995 maintained a docket of agency-initiated Title IX cases. An intercollegiate athletics review was undertaken at Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.), for example, because of possible substantial disparities in athletic opportunities being provided to male and female students. As a result of OCR's work, the university has hired a women's soccer coach, increased publicity services for women's teams, and adjusted assignment and compensation of coaches. The University will survey athletic interests and abilities and add women's teams if the need is indicated. Georgetown has made commitments to eliminate substantial disparities regarding equipment and supplies, support services and recruitment of women athletes. Such cases help to underline that schools and universities will, for the most part, work with OCR to remedy illegal discrimination. Georgetown has expressed appreciation for OCR's analysis, and has already taken steps to increase opportunity for women athletes in the upcoming year.

OCR has ongoing obligations to ensure the desegregation of formerly racially segregated systems of higher education. In FY 1995, OCR developed a "partnership/stakeholder" approach as a more positive and effective approach to affording equal access to higher educational opportunities for African Americans in states with histories of segregation in higher education systems. In keeping with the Supreme Court's 1992 Fordice decision, OCR is assessing the compliance status of several states. Florida and Pennsylvania are working with OCR to address not only the desegregation compliance standards under the Supreme Court's decision but also the issues of access to educational excellence -- concerns that track the interest of the Department in increasing access to high-quality education for all students.

While in the vast majority of cases OCR can come to agreement with schools, colleges and universities on the steps necessary to stop and remedy illegal discrimination, this is unfortunately not always the case. In one case, Southwestern Virginia Training Center, a state-operated facility for the developmentally disabled, provided no accommodation for employees with physical disabilities who were fully able to perform the essential functions of their jobs. The case was initiated as the result of a complaint from a residential aide at the facility who was fired because of this policy. The Center finally agreed, after administrative enforcement proceedings were initiated, to amend its discriminatory policy. However, the Center refused to reimburse the employee for lost wages and benefits. As a result, an administrative enforcement hearing was conducted. On June 30, 1995, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an initial decision finding the Center in violation of Section 504. The ALJ also issued a proposed order to terminate Federal funds to the Center. The case is now on appeal before the Department's Civil Rights Reviewing Authority.

OCR also initiated cases in the areas of illegal discrimination in program admissions; under- representation of women, girls and minorities in math and science and other high track courses due to legally impermissible reasons; and illegal segregation.

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