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

Annual Report to Congress Fiscal Year 1998

How the OCR Does its Work

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, located in Washington, D.C., provides overall leadership, support and coordination to the 12 enforcement offices throughout the country. The headquarters office also issues policy clarifications to help educators met their civil rights obligations when new issues emerge or when legislation, referendum and court decisions take place. In fiscal year 1998, new policy was disseminated on a number of issues.

There are not words to express my appreciation for your efforts. I don't know when I have worked with issues where there were so many complex steps needed to be taken and where they were so effectively completed. Thank you for this.--Letter from Parent to OCR Investigator

The OCR carries out its civil rights compliance responsibilities through a number of activities, including complaint investigations, compliance reviews and technical assistance. A large share of the agency's work is devoted to investigating civil rights complaints filed by students, parents and others. Although it is difficult to predict what complaints will be filed, the OCR monitors current trends through analysis of its complaint data. The OCR also conducts agency-initiated compliance reviews on issues deemed critical within education and civil rights fields. To assist others in understanding and complying with the nation's civil rights laws, the agency also provides cost-effective assistance, in the form of workshops, conferences, and publications and other outreach services, to help schools and colleges, and their students and employees.

The OCR Investigates Complaints

Any person may file a complaint with the OCR if he or she believes someone has suffered discrimination due to race, color, national origin, sex, disability or age in a federally funded education program or activity. The person who files the complaint does not have to be the one who experienced discrimination; for example, parents often file complaints on behalf of their elementary- or secondary-school children. In fact, anyone may file a complaint on behalf of any other person or group of people.

The goal of the OCR is to resolve the complaint allegations promptly, fairly and appropriately. The agency has found that the best way to resolve problems is a collaborative approach among students, parents, community groups, state education agencies, and schools and colleges. We realize that these different stakeholders have a common interest in ensuring a high quality education for all students, and we also recognize our need to consider their unique perspectives. In addition, the involvement of these citizens - no matter how diverse their interests may appear to be - results in their mutual ownership of the problem's resolution. We remain convinced that the best and most effective solutions to allegations of discrimination come from these collaborative approaches.

The OCR is creative in its use of techniques to resolve complaints and it allows these methods, or any combination of them, to be used at any time to reach resolution. For example, the agency may help move the student or parent and the school or college toward an agreement on how to resolve the complaint. In another technique, the OCR may negotiate an agreement resolving the allegations raised by the student or parent. Of course, the OCR may also determine that there is not enough evidence to support a finding of a civil rights violation. In other situations, the agency may make a finding, based on its investigation, and negotiate an agreement with the school or college.

These methods are effective because they:

Through these non-adversarial approaches, the OCR resolves civil rights violations. The agency tries every logical means to end disputes by working with students and parents, and with schools and college officials. Rarely does the OCR need to move to formal enforcement; however, it will take this step when all other alternatives fail.

The OCR Conducts Compliance Reviews

To combat discrimination effectively, the OCR reviews the policies and practices of education institutions to ensure their compliance with law. It cannot rely solely on complaints filed by students and others as these complaints may focus, in any one year, on education issues that are not fully representative of the most acute civil rights problems. Therefore, the agency initiates compliance reviews to balance its enforcement program by looking at areas and issues that may be under-represented by complaints. Also, the agency designs its compliance reviews to benefit the greatest numbers of students. These reviews make the best use of the agency's resources, as well as balance its enforcement program.

During fiscal year 1998, the OCR initiated 102 reviews and it completed 100 reviews, some of which were started in earlier years. The reviews initiated focused on:

The OCR uses the best information available to select issues and schools for review. Education and civil rights groups, community organizations, parents and the media all contribute a variety of knowledge used in the agency's decision-making. The OCR backs up these facts with statistical data from such sources as the Elementary and Secondary School Civil Rights Compliance Report, which it administers. Since 1968, this survey has been the chief source of data collection on the status of civil rights in the nation's schools. One-third of the nation's school districts are included in its biennial representative sample.

The OCR Gives Technical Assistance

Putting an end to discrimination includes preventing it before it starts. It is for this reason that the OCR provides information and other support services -known as technical assistance - to schools and colleges, as well as to community, student and parent groups. The aid that the OCR gives to education institutions helps them comply with federal civil rights requirements, while the assistance given to students and others informs them of their rights under law regarding equal access to high-quality education.

This conference should not be viewed as a one-time event. It should be the beginning of a with voluntary parent agencies and other stakeholders.--Parent group representative

One example of the timely assistance given by the OCR to school districts and state education departments is the work of the OCR's San Francisco office. California's Proposition 227, which passed in June 1998, requires school districts to redesign their education programs for the state's 1.4 million English-language learners. Before the start of the new school year, districts had to develop new curriculum, obtain new teaching material, revamp student and teacher assignments, and educate teachers and parents about new state requirements. The OCR assisted California districts by working with the state education department to offer a series of workshops focusing on federal law in the context of the new state law. The workshops began in September and are being given at school districts and county offices of education.

Technical assistance is given by the OCR's headquarters and 12 enforcement offices through a variety of methods that include on-site consultations, conferences, training, community meetings and published materials. A customer service team in the agency's headquarters office in Washington, D.C.. serves as the first point of contact for students, parents, educators and community members who need a question answered, who want a copy of one of the OCR publications, or who have a Freedom of Information Act request. In addition to the headquarters team, each of the 12 enforcement offices includes a staff member serving as a liaison to the customer service team.

The conference provided me with an update on the current issues as they related to serving language-minority students. All sessions were very informative. Thank you.--State education agency official

The agency serves the public through its web page at the address http://www.ed.gov/offices/OCR/. The agency also operates an 800 telephone line [1-800-421-3481] that is staffed during business hours, eastern time. Calls and letters requesting assistance come from other federal agencies, state agencies, local school districts, community groups, and parents and students. Nearly 5,000 hotline phone inquiries were answered by the customer service team in the last fiscal year and just about all these questions were answered through this single point-of-contact. The team also responds to an increasing volume of e-mail.

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