By Michael McCurry
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has started rejecting hundreds of civil rights complaints that they consider burdensome to the office in accordance with a new protocol.
Department officials argued that the new policy is aimed at advocates who flood the office with thousands of complaints about similar violations, overloading the office’s staff with cases that they claim could be resolved without exhausting their staff’s time and resources. However, civil rights advocates worry that the rejection of legitimate claims is a signal of the Department of Education’s continued attempts to diminish their role in enforcing civil rights laws in the nation’s school.
Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, told the New York Times that the new provision is a part of the office’s new manual that lays out the procedure for processing civil rights complaints.
According to Hill, the goal of the new manual, which took effect last month, is to help the civil rights office streamline the management of its docket, investigations and resolutions.
Among the newly implemented changes is a provision that allows the Office for Civil Rights to dismiss cases that it feels “reflect a pattern of complaints previously filed with Office for Civil Rights by an individual or a group against multiple recipients,” and complaints “filed for the first time against multiple recipients that place an unreasonable burden on Office for Civil Rights’ resources.” Since its implementation, the provision has yielded the dismissal of over 500 disability rights complaints.
According to the Education Department, 41 percent of the 16,720 complaints that were filed in the fiscal year of 2016 came from just three people. In fiscal year 2017, of the 12,837 total cases, 23 percent of them did. The Department of Education refers to these kinds of complainants as “frequent fliers.”
One of these “frequent fliers'” is Marcie Lipsitt, a disability rights advocate in Michigan, who has filed more than 2,400 complaints with the Office for Civil Rights against schools, colleges and universities, libraries and other educational institutions across the country primarily for having websites that are not accessible to those who are blind and/or deaf. In recent weeks, Lipsitt said, she has been notified that more than 500 cases, including active and open investigations, were dismissed. Each letter cited the new provision as the reason.
“But I won’t stop,” Lipsitt told the New York Times, “because if I do, the story goes away.”
The new manual also eliminates the appeals process for Office for Civil Rights decisions — department officials said it was due to the redundancy of similar decisions. The manual also erases all mention of investigators’ looking into “systemic issues.”
Civil rights groups have raised many red flags, which point out that the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos has already rescinded student protections guidelines that were meant to quell sexual assaults on campuses and systemic bias against black and transgender students.
The Department of Education has yet to say how its investigators would determine that a case would place an “unreasonable burden” on its resources. However, a few weeks after the new manual took effect, Congress allocated a further $8.5 million more in funding to the Office for Civil Rights, which DeVos had sought to cut, for the office to manage its caseload.
Courtesy of The Associated Press