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

Office for Civil Rights Annual Report to Congress (1999)

OCR Develops Strategies That Work

"[OCR's] workshops have been extremely useful to both students and parents. [The OCR representative] empowers the entire family by teaching them to understand and exercise their rights. One young woman, armed with this new knowledge, was able to favorably settle a dispute with school administrators in her favor."

Letter of appreciation for OCR workshops
provided to non-profit organization

OCR continued to pursue a balanced enforcement agenda in FY 1999, focusing on collaboration with state and local educational authorities, emphasizing prevention of discrimination, and seeking partners in expanding access to quality education. By working collaboratively, we save taxpayer dollars while remaining focused on protecting the rights of students and ensuring their access to high standards and educational excellence.

Promoting a More Collaborative Process

For many years, OCR's approach to complaints focused primarily on process. This stemmed, in large part, from a 1977 court order and subsequent court orders that imposed specified time frames and requirements for OCR's processing of complaints. To help meet the court's time frames, OCR established a step-by-step investigative process with extensive documentation requirements. There was no distinction between the types of complaints OCR received; all complaints were subject to the same formal investigative measures. Staff were encumbered by the procedures and prescribed steps that had to be implemented in every case, irrespective of their relative value or necessity to the particular matter at hand. Complaint investigations often were burdensome to schools and colleges. The process, with its reliance on sequential tasks, document production, and multiple layers of review, also resulted in long delays before complainants and school officials were able to obtain final resolutions. In 1993, OCR was still committing 90 percent of its resources to complaint processing, despite the dismissal of the court order in June 1990. Focused on the process of complaint resolution, OCR was unable to significantly address critical civil rights issues that were not raised in complaints.

In 1993, OCR decided to fundamentally re-engineer its approach to processing discrimination complaints. In December 1993, a new Case Resolution Manual was issued, which places primary emphasis on achieving effective change, rather than on document production. The Manual streamlines the complaint process with the objective of resolving a complainant's allegations of discrimination promptly and appropriately. It emphasizes mediation, negotiation, and other early case closure initiatives in resolving complaints. Using this revised approach, OCR is resolving more complaints with fewer staff. It also allows OCR to dedicate 40 percent of its resources to targeted proactive activities (such as compliance reviews, monitoring and technical assistance) that complement the action enforcement agenda. Activities are chosen that will achieve access to high quality and high standards education for the greatest number of students possible.

OCR places great reliance on collaborating with stakeholders to achieve optimal results. Because of this, OCR has been highly effective in obtaining voluntary resolution agreements to address civil rights concerns without having to resort to the ultimate sanction of enforcement. Furthermore, educationally sound practices are at the core of these resolution agreements. The 5,369 complaints resolved in FY 1999 is among the highest number recorded in the agency's history.

For example, during FY 1999, OCR collaborated with a state system of higher education to remove the last vestiges of racial segregation and increase access to higher education for minority students. One of the significant initiatives resulting from this collaborative approach was the state's commitment to improve educational opportunities, which included investing $35 million to enhance the facilities and infrastructure of its historically black university.

Other examples of collaboration during FY 1999 involved two statewide Title VI agreements developed regarding minority students' access to and participation in gifted programs. The agreements require substantive changes to existing eligibility criteria, including the use of multiple criteria and multiple assessment measures and instruments.


Students in BandOCR recognizes that federal, state, and local education agencies, as well as parents and other interested parties, share a common goal of equal opportunity and access to high quality education. OCR combines its expertise through educational partnerships to prevent civil rights problems and stop illegal discrimination.

Partnerships also are proving helpful in arriving at effective solutions, including educationally sound remedies that increase opportunities for all students. For example, our Seattle office developed an athletic equity internet web site with the State of Washington's Department of Education and a state interscholastic activities association. The web site allows school districts to go online to conduct Title IX athletics evaluations. The site provides all the relevant information needed for a comprehensive evaluation, including content and links on legal and policy requirements, worksheets for conducting the evaluation of program components, and links to other resources. The Seattle Office is now developing, with the same state agency, another web site for addressing harassment in the schools. This web site will include all available laws, regulations and policies on the subject as well as links to important self-evaluation resource materials. The web site will be primarily designed for use by parents, students and school districts and is expected to become a model for other state education agencies.

In addition, OCR also worked with a number of special education stakeholders, including a state's department of education, to revise a state statute in order to ensure compliance with several federal civil rights laws. Before the law's revision, the state had one of the highest rates of restrictive special education placement in the nation. Changes in the state's funding formula now encourage placement of students with disabilities in less restrictive educational settings.

Empowering Parents

One of OCR's strategic goals is to empower students and parents to solve their own problems of securing equal access to quality education. For example, working with several parent centers and organizations, OCR conducted training forums for minority and limited English- proficient parents in the nation's largest school system. The parents were given information about their rights and responsibilities in securing appropriate special education services for their children. The information provided enabled parents to advocate more effectively on behalf of their children.

OCR has also encouraged parental involvement in agreements resulting from complaints and compliance reviews. Parental involvement is essential to achieving lasting change by ensuring that positive actions implemented by education institutions continue once OCR is no longer involved.

Issue Networks

OCR has established internal networks around specific civil rights compliance issues to provide a forum for building knowledge and expertise around each issue area. The current networks are: minorities and special education, English language learners, gifted and talented education and ability grouping, racial harassment/discipline, Title IX athletics, testing, disability and desegregation.

The issue networks serve as a bridge between OCR staff working on the same issues and encountering the same questions across the country. They also serve to share best educational practices, refine our case resolution tools and approaches, ensure consistency in applying legal standards and share knowledge throughout the agency. These networks assist in our efforts to increase students' access to quality education.


OCR realizes that our most well-crafted resolution agreements will do little good unless we monitor their implementation to ensure that change has occurred and students, in fact, are receiving educational benefits. OCR is now giving increased attention to monitoring resolution agreements. The Eastern division offices (See Appendix A) developed and are now implementing a new proactive monitoring strategy. It focuses not only on whether the recipients has taken the specific steps required in its agreement, but also on whether those steps have achieved goals established for the compliance activity and improved students' access to high quality education. Most fundamentally, it has meant increased attention to monitoring. It has meant the application of greater rigor to the way we plan and carry out our monitoring activities. It has meant the use of specific monitoring strategies and techniques that are designed as a means of ensuring long-lasting positive change for students.

During FY 1999, OCR monitored 2,083 complaint resolution agreements, compared with 1,811 in FY 1994. Likewise, there has been a dramatic rise in monitoring compliance review agreements -- 807 during FY 1999, compared with 235 in FY 1994.

A few examples illustrate how students benefit as schools and colleges meet their commitments:

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