For the third time in less than two years, the Wake County school system is under a federal civil rights investigation. The announcement Thursday from two advocacy groups that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) will investigate charges of discrimination against Latino students was praised by those who said the scrutiny is needed.
“Thankfully, Wake County is finally getting much needed attention from the Office for Civil Rights,” said Jason Langberg, an attorney for Advocates for Children’s Services, one of the groups that filed the new complaint.
The various probes are looking at how students are assigned, how they’re suspended, what athletic opportunities they’re provided and whether they’re getting important notices in Spanish.
Skeptics say it’s a sign of overreaching by the federal government.
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“We don’t need people in Washington, D.C., dictating our lives,” said Wake school board member Chris Malone.
The complaints come after two years of highly publicized fights over student assignment that have raised Wake’s national profile.
The controversy helped bring in a new Democratic school board majority after last fall’s elections. Last month, the board voted along party lines to request staff to develop a new student assignment proposal for the 2013-14 school year that includes diversity as one of the components.
Amid all the hubbub, civil rights groups both locally and nationally filed three complaints against Wake that OCR decided to investigate.
“The inevitable result was community outrage, increased attention from advocacy organizations, and scrutiny from state and federal agencies responsible for protecting students’ rights,” Langberg said.
The Office for Civil Rights isn’t required to investigate every complaint it receives. OCR investigates 60 percent of the complaints it receives annually, according to David Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. He said it’s not unusual for a district of Wake’s size, the 16th-largest district in the nation with 151,000 students, to have multiple pending investigations.
In the first complaint from September 2010, the NAACP is alleging Wake violated Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by dropping the diversity policy and disproportionately suspending black students. Title VI prohibits institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating based on race and national origin.
OCR is still investigating the NAACP complaint. But the OCR announced Monday it had reached agreements with Wake and three other school districts accused of violating Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs.
Wake was one of 12 school districts that the National Women’s Law Center filed complaints against in November 2010.
Under that agreement, Wake will survey by Dec. 1 all female high school students and those in eighth grade to gauge their interest in sports that are not now offered by the district. Based on the results, Wake will add athletic opportunities at the high schools for the 2013-14 school year.
Federal officials will monitor Wake’s compliance with the agreement.
The newest investigation involves a complaint in June from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Advocates for Children’s Services charging that Wake is violating Title VI by not providing adequate translation services to Hispanic students whose parents have limited English proficiency.
Wake is facing frequent questioning from investigators who can potentially take away the $113.9 million a year the district gets in federal funding.
“We’re doing everything we can to comply with OCR to resolve the complaints,” said Michael Charboneau, a Wake schools’ spokesman.
Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh, said the scope of the investigations show that the federal government has too much involvement in local districts.
“There’s something troubling that the Department of Education can essentially intimidate districts into complying with federal law,” Stoops said.
But Kimberly West-Faulcon, a nationally recognized expert on civil rights law, said that the OCR must have found reasons to pursue those complaints against Wake considering it has limited resources.
“What you’re seeing is the Department of Education following up on charges,” said West-Faulcon, a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “It’s their goal to investigate these charges to ensure that students’ rights are being protected.”