New Rules Let Ed Department Ignore Disability-Related Complaints
Since January 2016, Marcie Lipsitt has filed 2,400 complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights over web accessibility for people with disabilities.
Lipsitt, a Michigan-based special education activist, estimates that a thousand of those complaints have ended in resolutions. However, last month she began receiving letters notifying her that hundreds of her complaints under investigation had been dismissed.
The reason: Under a new set of guidelines that went into effect March 5, the Office for Civil Rights can now dismiss reports if “a complaint is a continuation of a pattern of complaints previously filed with OCR by an individual or group against multiple recipients, or a complaint is filed for the first time … that places an unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.”
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A handful of people across the country such as Lipsitt file hundreds of civil rights complaints each year, often on behalf of others. Lipsitt said she files complaints for other families “every week of the year.”
In 2017, over 12,000 complaints were filed and 23 percent came from three “mass-filers,” according to Education Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill.
The procedure that led to the dismissal of Lipsitt’s complaints allows the office “to remain active in every type of discrimination subject matter while retaining discretion to engage in technical assistance efforts,” Hill said.
There is no “predetermined measure” of what a “pattern of complaints” constitutes, Hill said, but the office will conduct a thorough analysis of the complaint before issuing a dismissal.
The Office for Civil Rights is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws that protect individuals in public education from discrimination based on race, sex, age or ability, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
This move away from systemic investigations “doesn’t make any sense from a legal standpoint,” said Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.
“If you are aware that there are issues and that students’ rights are being violated under the law, then what they should be doing is taking steps to correct that systemically in order to reduce the number of complaints and not just dismissing the complaints outright,” Marshall said.
The guidelines in the manual also no longer allow for complainants to appeal if their case is dismissed. According to Hill at the Education Department, this system was eliminated because the appeals process seldom resulted in a different outcome.
“There’s absolutely no check and balance system at the OCR for any errors that are made in the investigation of complaints,” said Lipsitt.
If the complainant doesn’t agree with the dismissal, their only option now would be to hire a private lawyer to fight the decision — an option Lipsitt said many families can’t afford.
“The beauty of OCR and the beauty of my volunteer work is that I’ve shown people I achieve the same outcome with web access complaints that attorneys achieve filing expensive lawsuits,” she said.
In the meantime, Lipsitt said she will continue to file complaints while she pursues legal avenues to change the policies in the manual.
“I’m going to start filing again,” she said. “Then they can dismiss them and I will have a record of every single dismissed complaint that is meritorious.”