5 federal civil rights reviews underway in Washington schools

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Updated: March 20, 2013, 1:03 PM

 

SEATTLE — The U.S. Department of Education has five civil-rights reviews under way in Washington school districts — two in Seattle, one in the Lake Washington School District, one in Yakima and one statewide investigation related to Title IX.

Seattle is being investigated to see whether black students are disciplined more frequently and more harshly than white students, The Seattle Times reported (http://is.gd/YRrspY ) in Wednesday’s newspaper. The second review in the state’s largest school district focuses on students learning English.

Federal officials say they are also looking at programs for English-language learners in the Lake Washington School District and at anti-harassment policies and practices in the Yakima School District. The final investigation appears to be a statewide probe of gender issues in athletics.

All five investigations were started by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, as part of a four-year-old push by the Obama administration to more aggressively enforce civil-rights laws covering public schools.

A spokesman for the education department said that, in general, it initiates reviews on issues that are particularly acute or national in scope.

But Yakima and Lake Washington school officials said they got the impression they were randomly chosen for what amounted to a routine audit. They said they sent information requested by the Office of Civil Rights more than a year ago and have not heard what federal officials concluded.

In Seattle, district officials said they have no sense of why their district is under review.

From 2009 through the end of 2012, the civil-rights office has launched about 100 civil-rights investigations involving at least one school district in nearly every state. Those compliance reviews are in addition to following up on complaints filed by parents or community members.

Some have praised the department for its proactive approach.

“Finally, the Department of Education is back in the business of protecting the civil rights of children who attend public schools, said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil-rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

Others have criticized the department for overreaching.

Roger Clegg, who worked as a top civil-rights lawyer at the Justice Department under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, says civil-rights laws are important and should be enforced. But he worries that the Obama administration’s focus on data, especially in discipline, may cause school districts to stop punishing students who deserve it to get their numbers right, he said.

In Washington state, the investigation into racial disparities in discipline at Seattle Public Schools, which was started in mid-2012, is the most recent proactive review in the state. It doesn’t appear that any of the five have yet concluded, according to Jim Bradshaw, spokesman for the Education Department.