The federal government is redoubling its efforts to crack down on civil rights violations against students with disabilities and other minority groups, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday.

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will be issuing a series of letters offering guidance to school districts across the country and ramping up efforts to reach out to parents and advocacy groups, Duncan said in a speech in Selma, Ala.

Plans are in place to send 17 letters before the fiscal year ends Oct. 1 advising school districts on issues ranging from restraint and seclusion to teaching English language learners with disabilities and working with students who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

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“The truth is that, in the last decade, the Office for Civil Rights has not been as vigilant as it should have been in combating gender and racial discrimination and protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. But that is about to change,” Duncan said. “We are going to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement.”

The move is promising, says Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, which acts as an umbrella group for the federally mandated protection and advocacy systems in each state.

“In the past, my people felt that a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights was like going into a black hole,” he says.

More recently, however, Decker says he has been “very encouraged” by a dialogue between his office and the Office of Civil Rights. “There is a lot of communication, which is a good first step,” he says.

The 600-person Office of Civil Rights has the power to issue policy guidance, conduct compliance reviews and offer assistance to school districts. Ultimately, the office has the authority to withhold federal funds if civil rights violations go unresolved.

Duncan’s announcement Monday in Selma, Ala. coincides with the forty-fifth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when hundreds of civil rights marchers were aggressively confronted by law enforcement.

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