The Office for Civil Rights (OCR), in the U.S. Department of Education, is a law enforcement agency. It is charged with enforcing the federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. These laws are:
The civil rights laws represent a national commitment to end discrimination in educational programs. The laws are in harmony with the mission of the Department of Education -- ensuring equal access to education and promoting educational excellence throughout the nation.
Most of OCR's activities are conducted by enforcement offices throughout the country. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights provides overall leadership and coordination.
The civil rights laws enforced by OCR cover programs and activities that benefit from federal financial assistance. Because most educational institutions receive some type of federal financial assistance, these laws have broad application throughout the nation. Coverage of these civil rights laws extends to:
The civil rights laws protect large numbers of students attending, or applying to attend, our educational institutions. The laws protect:
The laws also protect, in certain situations, persons who are employed, or seeking employment, at educational institutions.
We have changed the nature of our relationships with those outside OCR by establishing constructive working relationships to achieve shared objectives of these civil rights laws. Here are just a few examples of collaborative approaches between OCR and others that have resulted in positive outcomes for students facing discrimination:
|"If I have learned anything ... as Secretary, it is that serious change in education cannot be imposed from without. We have learned that serious change comes from within. It comes when people in a community come to the table and engage in constructive and thoughtful conversation with each other. And it comes when all parties to an issue form and work towards a true partnership for change."
|"We felt that your collaboration with us on the issues of the resolution truly embodied the concept of 'Team.' ... You developed an atmosphere of comfortable collaboration that we never anticipated from a government agency. In this district, you have left an impression of an agency which truly seeks to meet the needs of the people it serves."
Working together with States and other stakeholders, OCR achieves positive change for students facing discrimination.
Persons who believe there has been a violation of the civil rights laws enforced by OCR may file discrimination complaints with the office. The complaint process provides a forum for resolution of alleged discrimination against individuals protected by the civil rights laws.
During FY 1996, OCR received 4,828 discrimination complaints alleging a wide range of civil rights concerns affecting access to equal educational opportunities. Of the total, OCR received 868 Title VI complaints alleging race, color or national origin discrimination. Complaints alleged a variety of discriminatory situations, including issues related to:
Three hundred twenty-one complaints were received alleging sex discrimination in violation of Title IX. Issues raised by these complaints included:
Disability discrimination complaints received pursuant to Section 504 and Title II totaled 2,533. They also presented a variety of discriminatory situations including:
Every day the Office for Civil Rights provides guidance and resolves cases that touch the lives of America's students. The office works to achieve positive solutions that will make a real difference in providing educational opportunities that would otherwise be improperly denied or limited.
|"From the first phone call I felt confident [the OCR investigator] would do all she could to solve my problem, which admittedly was not major, but it was important to my son, who has emotional problems, so that makes it very important to me. ... There was a time constraint on this problem and she got it resolved right on time. I can't say enough about her true concern and professionalism throughout."
For example, OCR is developing for the first time in the agency's history a statement of legal principles to guide OCR's work in the area of testing and assessment, and instituted an ongoing relationship with the National Academy of Sciences to further develop the agency's expertise and ability to address problems of discrimination related to various testing practices. Among its most significant case resolutions in 1996, OCR successfully resolved the allegations of a complaint against the Educational Testing Service and the College Entrance Examination Board. As a result, beginning with the October 1997 administration of the PSAT, a test of written English (a multiple choice test that measures writing skills) will be added to the test. The revised test will more accurately reflect the true potential of the students competing for National Merit Scholarships.
|"Words do not express accurately the feelings of gratitude my parents and I share for your commitment to help me ... As I walk across the stage to receive my diploma, I will say thank you in my heart for your help ... Without all of your support I would not graduate with the honors cords that mean so much to me."
In almost 60 percent of the 1996 cases determined appropriate for OCR intervention and resolution, OCR facilitated a resolution that resulted in changes on behalf of students protected by the civil rights laws. In 1,452 cases involving many times more students, OCR helped students achieve equal access to educational opportunity by putting an end to discriminatory practices.
OCR's primary objective in complaint resolution is to resolve the complainant's allegations of discrimination promptly and appropriately. OCR used a variety of techniques to resolve 4,886 complaints in FY 1996. These include early complaint resolution (where OCR facilitates voluntary resolution discussion between the parties), agreements for corrective action (which affords the subjects of the complaints the opportunity to voluntarily address the concerns raised in the complaint), and enforcement (which involves requiring remedies where investigations result in findings of civil rights violations which are not voluntarily corrected). Any approach, or combination of approaches, may be initiated at any time and multiple approaches may be used to resolve any complaint. This flexible approach allows OCR to:
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 are particularly acute, or national in scope, or which are newly emerging.
Targeted compliance reviews maximize the impact of OCR's resources and balance the enforcement program. Compliance reviews assure that vulnerable groups, such as limited-English speaking individuals, have their civil rights protected. Experience indicates that carefully targeted compliance reviews are likely to benefit large numbers of students through policy or program changes that are designed to secure the promise of equal opportunity -- unlike complaints where remedies may benefit only the complaining party. OCR initiated 146 reviews in FY 1996 -- the most undertaken within the last eight years -- and brought 173 reviews to successful resolution.
Selection of reviews is based on various sources of information, including survey data and information provided by parents, education groups, media, community organizations and the public. OCR conducts compliance reviews on such issues as:
OCR recognizes that federal, state, and local education agencies, as well as parents and other interested parties, share a common goal of providing equal opportunity and access to high quality education. OCR combines its expertise with these partners and stakeholders to come up with effective solutions, including educationally sound remedies that increase educational opportunities for all students.
OCR emphasizes the benefits of prevention over after-the-fact reactive solutions. Here are just a few examples of recent efforts:
|"Take advantage of OCR services. These are the folks that have the knowledge."
|"In many ways, we see ... the [Sexual Harassment] Guidance as a 'godsend.' ... [It provides] in one convenient place the clear implications of the statutes, regulations, and case law."
In all of our work, OCR engages stakeholders and comes to the table to provide common sense guidance to real-world problems.
Released: May 1997
| Responsibilities of the Office for Civil Rights | The Laws Apply to Educational Institutions | The Laws Apply to Students and Employees | OCR Responds to Discrimination Complaints from the Public | How OCR Resolves Complaints | OCR Conducts Compliance Reviews | OCR's Technical Assistance Helps People and Institutions | Impact of the Civil Rights Laws | Contacting OCR | Challenges |
This page last updated on 12/28/00 (sbd)