The U.S. Department of Education says that complaints of disability discrimination in the nation’s schools are at the highest level in five years.

The agency’s Office for Civil Rights received 6,390 complaints related to disability discrimination during the 2022 fiscal year, a period covering October 2021 through September 2022, according to data provided to Disability Scoop. That’s up from 4,886 similar complaints the year prior and represents the largest number since 2017 when more than 7,200 disability discrimination complaints were filed.

The surge comes as the Education Department logged a record number of civil rights complaints overall. The Office for Civil Rights, which is tasked with investigating discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability and age in programs funded by the Education Department, said it received 18,804 complaints of all types in 2022, its most ever.

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Officials with the Education Department declined to comment on what could be driving the trend, but Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, recently told The New York Times that the complaint levels suggest that her office is serving its purpose.

“It reflects the confidence in the Office for Civil Rights as a place to seek redress,” Lhamon told the newspaper. “At the same time, the scope and volume of harm that we’re asking our babies to navigate is astronomical.”

Just in the last year, the Office for Civil Rights has reached four agreements regarding the use of restraint and seclusion and resolved concerns about failing to meet the needs of students with disabilities during the pandemic with two large school districts.

Denise Marshall, CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, or COPAA, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of students with disabilities and their families, said she couldn’t speculate on what’s behind the rise in disability complaints, but concurred with Lhamon that it shows that families have faith in the Office for Civil Rights.

“Quite frankly I think families see OCR as the only arm of the Department of Education taking action towards compliance,” she said. “Families are tired of carrying the burden of meaningful compliance alone.”

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