School Civil Rights Complaints Reach An All-Time High

May 10, 2016

School-related civil rights complaints leapt to a record high in 2015, with 10,392 grievances filed with the U.S. Education Department.

Nearly half of the complaints were filed on behalf of students with disabilities and about one in five grievances alleged discrimination based on race, color or national origin, according to findings released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

“OCR’s work over the last year has been absolutely pivotal to advancing the Department’s goal to increase equity and opportunity for all students,” John King, U.S. Secretary of Education, said in a statement. “We are committed to working with and supporting schools to protect students’ civil rights — and we will take action to secure those rights when necessary.”

In the past decade the number of complaints filed by the OCR has surged by 88 percent, even as its staff levels fell by 15 percent. In 2005, the department received 5,533 complaints. In 2015, the number of complaints reached a record high of 10,392.

The department says they opened more than 3,000 investigations to protect students’ civil rights in 2015.

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Areas with large increases in civil rights complaints include appropriate supports for English learner students, restraint or seclusion of students with disabilities, access to technology for students with disabilities and sexual violence at schools. Here are some major findings:

  • 21 percent of complaints were related to racial discrimination, with 1,862 complaints about exclusion, denial of benefits, racial harassment or retaliation in schools.
  • 28 percent of complaints were related to sexual discrimination, with 65 complaints about sexual violence in elementary and high schools in 2015.
  • The number of complaints involving English learners has more than doubled in the past decade. In 2015, the OCR received 82 such complaints.

The report also highlighted trends found in U.S. schools during the 2011-2012 school year.

  • Black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students.
  • Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than students without disabilities.
  • Black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 42 percent of preschool children suspended once and 48 percent of preschool children suspended more than once.
  • Nationwide, one in five high schools lacks a school counselor. 

These numbers provide a national snapshot of school investigations and monitoring work done by the OCR.

The U.S. Department of Education is expected to release state-by-state data from the 2013-14 school year later this year. We’ll take a look at Indiana’s numbers when that happens.

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