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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

How the Education Department Can Ignore Civil Rights Complaints

 In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the civil rights of people with autism and other disabilities.

At Disability Scoop, Hannah Lang reports the the Education Department has a new way to thwart "mass filers," who file many civil rights complaints on behalf of others.
Since January 2016, Marcie Lipsitt has filed 2,400 complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights over web accessibility for people with disabilities.

Lipsitt, a Michigan-based special education activist, estimates that a thousand of those complaints have ended in resolutions. However, last month she began receiving letters notifying her that dozens of her complaints under investigation had been dismissed.

The reason: Under a new set of guidelines that went into effect March 5, the Office for Civil Rights can now dismiss reports if “a complaint is a continuation of a pattern of complaints previously filed with OCR by an individual or group against multiple recipients, or a complaint is filed for the first time … that places an unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.”
The guidelines in the manual also no longer allow for complainants to appeal if their case is dismissed. According to [Elizabeth] Hill at the Education Department, this system was eliminated because the appeals process seldom resulted in a different outcome.

“There’s absolutely no check and balance system at the OCR for any errors that are made in the investigation of complaints,” said Lipsitt.

If the complainant doesn’t agree with the dismissal, their only option now would be to hire a private lawyer to fight the decision — an option Lipsitt said many families can’t afford.
In August, Politico reported:
Betsy DeVos’ Education Department has closed more than 1,500 civil rights complaints at the nation’s schools — including dismissing more than 900 outright — in the two months since her acting civil rights chief took steps to reduce a massive backlog.

The June directive from acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson told the department's investigators to narrow their focus to the merits of a particular claim, rather than probing systemic issues, as they had done during the Obama administration. Jackson also gave regional civil rights offices more autonomy to close cases without approval from D.C.

The dismissals come as civil rights groups and Democrats express fear the Trump administration will “diminish” civil rights enforcement — a major focus of former President Barack Obama’s Education Department. Advocacy groups said that while the data offers just a two-month snapshot, the large number of dismissals and so-called “administrative closures” — in which a case is closed without any findings of wrongdoing — are alarming.