Just before Thanksgiving, the Education Department rescinded a provision adopted in March that allowed the agency’s Office for Civil Rights to dismiss any complaint that is part of a pattern of complaints by the same person or group that places an “unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.” As part of the changes earlier this year, the department also eliminated the appeals process for complaints. The opportunity to appeal has now been reinstated.
“It’s good they’re saying they’re going to fix this, we just have a lack of trust in them because of their behavior,” said Eve Hill, lead attorney for the three groups that sued. “What we need is a commitment that’s enforceable.”
The lawsuit, which was filed in May by the National Federation of the Blind, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, alleges that the changes in handling complaints of discrimination based on disability or race were intended to strip students of their rights.
Hill said she will seek a settlement agreement or other legally binding resolution to ensure that the complaint process is not changed again.
She said it was troubling to dismiss complaints solely because they came from the same person, noting that a student might encounter violations of the law when entering school for the first time and then face them again when entering new grades and schools.
“People with disabilities get discriminated against more than once in their life, particularly if you’re talking about a child,” Hill said. “The fact that one person experiences discrimination more than once, can’t prevent them from challenging that discrimination.”
Marcie Lipsitt, a Michigan mother of a son with special needs, received a letter in November from the Education Department saying that it would now investigate her 662 complaints that were dismissed after the procedure change earlier this year. She files web accessibility complaints against school districts on behalf of students with vision, hearing and fine motor disabilities.
“I feel vindicated that they reopened these complaints because these complaints were all meritorious,” Lipsitt said. “I have believed since March 5 when they unleashed these revisions that they were unlawful and un-American.”
In making the Education Department’s recent announcement, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus said he had reviewed the Office for Civil Rights’ case processing manual and received constructive feedback on it.
“While we continue to work to improve the timeliness of OCR’s case processing, we have determined that additional revisions will help improve our work and allow us to be more responsive to students, stakeholders and our staff,” Marcus said.
Lipsitt said the civil rights complaint process is an important way of empowering families to report violations of the law without spending money on legal fees.
“Civil rights complaints are free,” she said. “You don’t need a lawyer. These are administrative and they can achieve the same results as federal lawsuits.”