All students—regardless of race, national origin, religion, disability, or sex—deserve access to a high-quality education, from preschool through college. Throughout the last seven-and-a-half years, the Obama administration and the Department of Education have worked to safeguard the rights and protections of our students by enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws and implementing regulations that prohibit discrimination and providing additional support to educators to prevent such discrimination.
Building on these critical efforts, today, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) launched a webpage that consolidates resources from across the Federal government about religious discrimination. The new page links to OCR’s relevant policy guidance and case resolutions involving religious discrimination claims, as well as resources in various languages and from other Federal agencies.
No student – whether Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, or of any other religious background – should experience barriers to learning and success in school because of who the student is or what the student believes.
That’s why last month, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights participated in a community forum in Palo Alto, California, on religious discrimination in schools and universities. This roundtable built on an event in Newark, New Jersey, in March, where the Department of Education joined the Justice Department in announcing the launch of Combating Religious Discrimination Today, a new interagency community engagement initiative designed to promote religious freedom, challenge religious discrimination and enhance enforcement of religion-based hate crimes.
On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) first became law. Since then, it has stood as an important piece of civil rights legislation, prohibiting discrimination and ensuring that people with disabilities share the same opportunities available to all Americans.
For twenty-five years, the ADA has helped to transform perceptions, promote access, and support success. One of the law’s greatest results has been to affirm the right of self-determination for people with disabilities. It used to be that many life decisions were made for people with disabilities. Today, millions of Americans have the freedom to shape their own lives and determine their own destinies, whether they have physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, learning disabilities, or any other disability.
In the field of education, thanks to the ADA and other civil rights laws, students with disabilities are now entitled to equal opportunities to participate in extracurricular sports. Schools that use online education or electronic devices must provide students with disabilities with equal access to those learning experiences, as well as to educational opportunities outside the classroom. We’re working to ensure positive school climates for all students, including students with disabilities, from addressing bullying and harassment, to ensuring that schools don’t discriminate in how they discipline students. And educational facilities and programs must meet appropriate accessibility standards.
I’ve seen proof of the ADA’s impact on students around the country. I’ve been inspired by the many leaders and advocates who work hard every day to advance the rights of people with disabilities, and by the students with disabilities who are fully participating and excelling in school, including sports and other extracurricular activities.
I’m proud of what we at the Department have been able to achieve – with the help of partners at the national, state, and local levels – to support children and adults with disabilities, from pre-school to college, and beyond. The data show we’re making progress on educational outcomes for students with disabilities in ways that are transformative for students, schools, and society. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for example, the nation’s high school graduation rate is the highest ever – and from 2011 to 2013, the graduation rate of students with disabilities rose by nearly 3 percentage points.
On the civil rights front, between 2009 and 2014, our Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has resolved more than 25,000 ADA-related complaints. These include cases involving school discipline and use of restraint and seclusion; whether students received a free appropriate public education as defined and required by law; equal access to educational opportunities; academic adjustments for postsecondary students; access to appropriate technology, services, and facilities; disability-based bullying and harassment; and retaliation for exercising civil rights.
Since 2009, OCR has issued groundbreaking policy guidance on topics like the use of electronic book readers and other emerging technology in compliance with federal civil rights laws; schools’ obligations to respond to bullying and harassment of students with disabilities; the rights of students with hepatitis B in postsecondary health-related programs; effective communication requirements for students with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities in public elementary and secondary schools; and how schools may follow CDC recommendations for protecting against Ebola and the measles without discriminating against students with disabilities.
Our Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) has facilitated a major shift in how the Department oversees the effectiveness of states’ early intervention services and special education programs by developing a new results-driven accountability framework under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Our aim is to achieve better outcomes for the country’s 6.5 million children with disabilities. This approach pivots from a primary emphasis on compliance to a focus on improved results and outcomes for students with disabilities, including performance on assessments, graduation rates, and early childhood outcomes. In addition, OSERS is also working to build stronger bridges between K-12 and postsecondary education and career pathways for young people with disabilities through the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) signed by President Obama one year ago. WIOA encourages greater alignment and coordination across federal, state and local programs to increase people with disabilities’ access to high quality workforce, education and rehabilitation services provided in the most effective and efficient manner.
But while these gains are promising, we must do even better – from addressing the new realities of the digital age by ensuring equal access for people with disabilities in online learning – to raising high school graduation, postsecondary completion, and career readiness for people with disabilities – to curbing inequity and civil rights violations experienced by students with disabilities.
The 25th anniversary of the passage of the ADA is more than a celebration. It’s an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the values that the ADA represents and to renew our commitment to helping all Americans succeed – in schools, workplaces, and every part of public life.
We at the Department remain steadfast in our goal – working together with schools, parents and guardians, and stakeholders – to realize the promise of the ADA.
Catherine Lhamon is the assistant secretary for Civil Rights
Each day we have the pleasure and honor to meet and work with extraordinary school leaders who are working hard to deliver on the hopes we, as parents, have for our own children and for all students in schools. We want to share the story of one such leader in Colorado, whose work we are excited to see, and whose success in supporting parental involvement and engendering community support for schools we’d like to see replicated in more school communities around the country.
In Colorado’s Adams County School District 14, Superintendent Patrick Sánchez has accomplished transformative change against very tall odds. In April 2014, our Office for Civil Rights (OCR) resolved a complaint against the district to fix what had become a very hostile environment for Latino students, parents and staff. During our investigation we confirmed, for example, that the district had prohibited students from speaking Spanish at school, even in social settings. Staff reportedly used racially hostile language toward Latino students and denigrated students’ cultural backgrounds.
A Latino staff member also reported to us that a principal justified messy bathrooms because “Mexicans are poor and don’t use toilet paper,” and “there are few restrooms in Mexico.” As a cause of the racially hostile environment, many Latino staff were forced to resign or were removed from their jobs.
This is the environment that Superintendent Sánchez sought to immediately fix when he took the reins in July 2012, after the previous Superintendent’s resignation following the start of our investigation. Since that time, the Adams 14 district has made impressive gains to deliver equal educational opportunity to the district’s 7,000+ students. Superintendent Sánchez publicly apologized to parents, the community and staff for harm that they suffered in the past, and has made great strides in restoring the community’s trust and involvement in the district.
All of our students deserve equal access to educational resources like academic and extracurricular programs, strong teaching, facilities, technology, and instructional materials, no matter their race, color, or national origin.
That’s why my office, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, released new guidance this week to educators to ensure that all students have equal access to the school resources that they not only deserve, but are their right under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Our most recent Civil Rights Data Collection shows that only two out of three Latino high school students and three out of five of black high school students attend schools that offer the full range of math and science courses, defined by OCR as Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry and physics. Since the start of this Administration, OCR has received more than 260 complaints related to resource equity. OCR has also initiated 33 investigations of states, school districts and schools. Here are two recent examples from our investigations to ensure that students of color could access the educational resources that are their right:
In a New Hampshire school district, black and Latino students were disproportionately under-enrolled in the district’s Advanced Placement courses. In an agreement with OCR, the district committed to consider increasing the numbers and types of courses offered and adding more teachers qualified to teach higher-level courses, among other remedies.
Earlier this year, in a California school district, OCR found that during the 2010-11 school year, black students in grades 3-6 were more than 4.5 times less likely than their white peers to be identified for the Gifted and Talented (GATE) program. To rectify this, the district agreed to revise GATE criteria and enrollment practices to eliminate barriers to equal access.
We released this guidance to give schools, school districts, and states detailed information on how OCR investigates resource disparities and to set a clear framework for educators on how to comply with the fundamental principle that all students, no matter their race, color, or national origin, deserve equal access to a high-quality education.
In remarks announcing the new guidance, Secretary Arne Duncan described numerous inequities in access to strong teaching, rigorous coursework, and quality facilities. “These facts, and this reality, compels us to act,” he said. “We cannot simply wring our hands and admire the problem.”
This guidance is just one part of President Obama’s larger commitment to equity, including the recently announced Excellent Educators for All initiative. It also builds on recommendations from the Equity and Excellence Commission’s 2012 “For Each and Every Child” report.
We released this guidance to end the tired practice of offering students of color less than we offer other students and to make sure that all of our students have access to the education they deserve.
Equity – the push to ensure strong educational opportunity for every student – drives everything we do at the U.S. Department of Education, and particularly in the Office for Civil Rights. From preschool enrollment to college attendance and completion, our office’s work is grounded in the belief that all students, regardless of race, gender, disability, or age, need a high-quality education to be successful.
Yet despite the gains we’ve made as a country, too many students are not receiving the education they deserve, and it is our collective duty to change that. Data is crucial to this work and helps us understand the extent of educational inequity throughout the U.S. and make informed decisions for action.
Since 1968, the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), formerly the Elementary and Secondary School Survey, has collected data on key education and civil rights issues in our nation’s public schools. Our office uses this data to focus our equity efforts and monitor the effectiveness of our programs. Earlier today we released new data from the 2011-12 collection, and for the first time since 2000, we collected data from every public school in the nation. This newest collection also includes data on preschool suspensions and expulsions for the first time as well.
Below are five striking new facts from the 2011-12 CRDC collection:
Access to preschoolis not a reality for much of the country.About 40 percent of public school districts do not offer preschool, and where it is available, it is mostly part-day only. Of the school districts that operate public preschool programs, barely half are available to all students within the district.
Suspension of preschool children. Black students represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 42 percent of preschool students suspended once, and 48 percent of the preschool students suspended more than once.
Access to courses necessary for college is inequitably distributed. Eighty-one percent of Asian-American high school students and 71 percent of white high school students attend high schools where the full range of math and science courses are offered (Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics). However, fewer than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students have access to the full range of math and science courses in their high schools. Black students (57 percent), Latino students (67 percent), students with disabilities (63 percent), and English learner students (65 percent) also have diminished access to the full range of courses.
Access to college counselors is uneven. Nationwide, one in five high schools lacks a school counselor.
Disparities in high school retention. Twelve percent of black students are retained in grade nine – about double the rate that all students are retained (six percent). Additionally, students with disabilities served by IDEA and English learners make up 12 percent and five percent of high school enrollment, respectively, but 19 percent and 11 percent of students held back or retained a year, respectively.
Research shows that the use of suspensions has steadily climbed since the 1970s and that most suspensions today are for minor and non-violent incidents of misbehavior. These misbehaviors could be better addressed through measures that keep kids in school than by turning our kids away from the classroom door. Further, federal data my office, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), collected for the 2011-12 school year indicates that students of color disproportionately bear the burden when schools use exclusion as punishment – they are disciplined more harshly and more frequently than other students, resulting in serious, negative educational consequences. For example, black students without disabilities represented 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled – but only 15 percent of students total in the OCR’s Civil Rights Data Collection. And over 50 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are black or Latino.
Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder announced new school climate and discipline guidance today at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore.
Standing alone, disparate discipline rates like these do not necessarily indicate that a school or district is violating civil rights laws in every situation. Unfortunately, OCR investigations, which consider statistical data as part of a wide ranging examination of evidence, have revealed patterns of discrimination in certain cases.
Racial discrimination in school discipline is real, and it is a real problem. That’s why today, my office, OCR, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, released first-ever federal policy guidance aimed at addressing the problem of racial discriminatory discipline practices in elementary and secondary education. We sent our policy guidance, in the form of a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), to help schools and districts identify and remedy discriminatory discipline practices. The guidance explains federal non-discrimination requirements under Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the legal approach the Departments will take when investigating complaints or compliance reviews alleging race or national origin discrimination in a school or district’s discipline practices.
The DCL also provides concrete examples to help schools and districts understand the potential civil rights violations that may arise when disciplining students. Importantly, the DCL provides a number of recommendations that schools and districts can implement to ensure that discipline is fair and effective. These recommendations align with a set of guiding principles the U.S. Department of Education developed and also released today.
I encourage all educators, from the classroom to state education agencies, to take time to review the discipline guidance and other resources released as part of the Department’s overall discipline package. I know that educators across the country are working to provide students with safe school environments where students can receive an excellent education. Teachers and principals make difficult, yet appropriate, decisions involving the use of school discipline each and every school day. And yet, in some of our schools and districts, the unfair and unnecessary use of suspensions and expulsions undermine this essential work. Students must be in school to be successful.
When schools exclude their students as punishment, then students not only miss valuable learning time but also too often lose a sense of belonging and engagement at school. This lesson in civic disengagement becomes further compounded when we send our students the message that they are being singled out or treated differently because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin.Exclusionary discipline practices place students at risk for experiencing a number of correlated educational, economic, and social problems, including school avoidance, increased likelihood of dropping out, and involvement with the juvenile justice system.
President Obama has challenged us to once again lead the world in college graduation rates.We cannot possibly hope to meet this challenge of preparing all students for college and career if we continually sideline some students with suspensions and expulsions rather than employing methods proven to work to teach kids responsibility for their actions and their learning, commitment to their peers in the educational process, and the value of school engagement. Let’s work together to support schools, to remove barriers to educational opportunity, and to ensure students’ safe passage through the critical and formative stages of their educational experience.