The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) has begun dismissing hundreds of civil rights complaints under a new protocol that went into affect on March 5, 2018. The new protocol explained in the Department's "Case Processing Manual" is meant to help clean up and eliminate the backlog of complaints. The Department stresses that the protocol is meant to help the Department become more efficient in the handling of complaints.The protocol allows investigators to disregard cases that are part of serial filings or that they consider burdensome to the office. This is concerning as the OCR has clarified in several interviews that this did mean legitimate cases would be dismissed if there were other cases already filed that were comparable. Additionally, the new protocol also eliminates an appeals process for the office’s decisions and bars complaints based on reports or concerns raised in articles or other media outlets.
Many civil rights advocates in Massachusetts and across the nation are worried that this new protocol gives too much discretion to the office. Some fear that the office’s rejection of legitimate claims is just another example of the Education Department’s shrinking role in enforcing civil rights laws in the nation’s schools. If there is evidence of a legal violation, the Education Department should be required to open a case and investigate – that is the purpose of the OCR.
The Education Department, however, cites statistics to support the new protocol. The Department reports that forty-one (41%) percent of the 16,720 civil rights complaints filed in 2016 came from just three people. In 2017, the Department reports that twenty-three (23%) percent of the 12,837 civil rights complaints filed came from the same three people. The Department categorizes these three people as ‘mass filers.'
These changes should be concerning to Education Advocates, Attorneys and parents of students in all schools in the United States. Since Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has assumed control of the Education Department guidance on issues related to protecting students of color, transgender students and students who are victims of sexual assaults on campuses have been deleted from the Education Department’s website. Efforts should be made to keep an eye on what the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights does with this new protocol over the next few months.
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