Protecting All Students’ Civil Rights

“We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anyone else.” 
– President Barack Obama, Jan. 21, 2013

One of the Obama Administration’s highest priorities has been to safeguard the access of all students — regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sex, first language, disability status, or any other identifying factor — to a world-class education. To achieve equity and excellence at every level of our education system, in every school, for every student, the Administration reinvigorated enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws.

As a result, under the Obama Administration, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has had a profound impact on increasing educational equity nationwide.

America’s civil rights laws extend to a wide range of recipients of federal funding, such as all state education agencies, approximately 16,900 school districts, about 7,200 colleges and universities, and other institutions that receive financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education, including libraries, museums, and correctional facilities.

OCR’s comprehensive, data-driven strategy to do this work includes investigating complaints, initiating proactive compliance reviews, monitoring schools’ activities, providing technical assistance, issuing policy guidance, and managing and improving the federal Civil Rights Data Collection, which gathers wide-ranging information on education access and equity from the nation’s public schools.

Since the beginning of the Obama Administration, OCR delivered justice to countless students and families by conducting a record number of investigations, responding to close to 70,000 civil rights complaints, and entering into more than 5,000 resolution agreements with schools and education programs, from preschool through college.

These numbers represent a reinvigoration of OCR. In 2008, for example, OCR received a little over 6,100 complaints and reached 448 resolution agreements from resolved cases. These increases demonstrate greater awareness in the field about students’ civil rights in education, as well as OCR’s mission and work to enforce them.

Every year, OCR gives technical assistance to schools and communities around the country on both longstanding and emerging civil rights issues, such as school discipline and sexual harassment. In 2015 alone, OCR provided more than 250 technical assistance sessions to schools and districts, state education agencies, colleges and universities, parent groups, nonprofit organizations, and advocacy and legal groups.

OCR’s policy guidance also has had a widespread, positive impact by guiding states, districts, schools, and others to proactively address civil rights issues, often without any formal federal enforcement action. During the Obama Administration, OCR released more than 30 policy guidance documents, including Dear Colleague Letters, which explain how OCR interprets and enforces the federal civil rights laws protecting students.

These letters have explained how the laws passed by Congress apply to topics, such as providing equitable access to athletics for students with disabilities; responding to and preventing sexual harassment and violence; and supporting students’ equal access to educational resources to promote their academic success. OCR also issued guidance to schools noting their responsibility to respond to bullying and harassment of students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LBGT) children and youths.

Since 2009, OCR’s enforcement of civil rights laws has had a tangible effect on teaching and learning in schools. For example, by ensuring that an online school affords students who are blind the same access to virtual education as their sighted peers, OCR opened a gateway to education for many other students who had been shut out from this educational opportunity. By reaching a resolution with a school district to ensure a positive school experience for Latino students and staff and to foster better communication between the school and the local Spanish-speaking community, OCR supported improved school climates. And by enforcing transgender students’ rights to access school facilities consistent with their gender identity, OCR promoted a safe learning environment not only for transgender students, but also for every student in school.

OCR is not alone in its federal efforts to improve the lives and educational experiences of our students. The Department of Education also collaborated with the Department of Justice to issue joint guidance, safeguarding the rights of English learners; promoting effective communication for students with speech, vision, or hearing disabilities; clarifying the applicability of civil rights laws in juvenile justice facilities; and advancing nondiscriminatory school discipline practices.

In fact, joint guidance on school discipline from the Departments of Education and Justice spurred a national conversation, a first-ever White House Summit on school discipline, and a movement called #ReThinkDiscipline to reduce exclusionary discipline practices, such as expulsions and suspensions, which disproportionately affect students of color. OCR also furthered a national dialogue about identifying and eliminating sexual violence on college campuses by making publicly available a list of higher education institutions under investigation for violating their responsibilities under Title IX to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.

During the Obama Administration, the Department of Education shined a light on educational equity for the benefit of students, families, schools, and the public in new ways.

OCR issued its richer, more robust Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) during this Administration via three releases, which now offers an array of new indicators that educators and others can use to gauge the “equity health” of schools. The CRDC is a revolutionary tool to analyze opportunity gaps and begin to identify solutions to our most pressing equity challenges. Though the CRDC is a longstanding part of OCR’s work, it was not until this Administration that OCR made the data collected through CRDC publicly available and searchable online. The Department of Education also transformed data from the CRDC into interactive, online story maps that paint an easy-to-access, graphical picture of our challenges, such as chronic absenteeism.

The data also tell a positive story. Educators, researchers, policymakers, and families can use the CRDC to find districts and schools where, for example, students have equal opportunity to participate in gifted and talented programs, take the full spectrum of rigorous math and science courses necessary for college, and attend a high school where school counselors are available. With this information, we all can learn from schools and districts that are making progress in increasing educational opportunity and student achievement.

Students in schools today do not have time to wait for their rights, which is why the work to ensure even greater educational equity and opportunity must continue.

The tools and resources the Department of Education created during the Obama Administration will help educators, students, and families for years to come, and provide insights into where even more work must be done.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Obama signed in 2015, provides an opportunity to enhance equity in education by upholding critical protections for our students. The law dedicates resources and supports specifically for America’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable children. The law also maintains the expectation that, in schools where students are not making progress, action will be taken to improve opportunities for our children.

With everyone involved in the effort to make our schools safer, fairer, and more equitable, we can ensure all students have the chance to achieve their fullest potential.