The U.S. Department of Education recently indicated plans to intensify civil rights oversight and enforcement efforts by its Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR division of the Department of Education enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination against students based on sex, race, national origin and disability status in schools, colleges and universities. On March 8, 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced plans to “reinvigorate” OCR, including a new focus on enforcement of relevant federal laws, the release of new policy guidance to educational institutions and the provision of technical assistance to schools, parents and students. The announcement was made in Selma, Alabama, on the 45th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” an incident during which peaceful civil rights protesters were battered by state troopers, and which ultimately led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Right Act.

In the area of enforcement, Secretary Duncan indicated that the Department plans to conduct 38 investigations, or “compliance reviews,” addressing approximately 40 issues over the coming year. On March 10, two days after Secretary Duncan’s speech in Selma, the Department announced the first of these compliance reviews, which will investigate access to educational opportunities for English Learner (EL) students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). If OCR finds that an educational institution is not compliant with federal law, the educational institution must become compliant or face the potential loss of federal funding.

With respect to the forthcoming guidance, Assistant Secretary of Education Russlynn Ali indicated that the OCR would release approximately 17 guidance letters over the next fiscal year on topics as diverse as food allergies, training for school nurses on diabetes, sexual violence on college and university campuses, and access to college- and career-ready courses in elementary and secondary schools.

OCR has also announced a number of changes to its data collection processes. Specifically, new data items will be included in OCR’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) system, through which it surveys school districts regarding student educational opportunities and civil rights. The new data items will address topics that Secretary Duncan classified as ongoing concerns to the Department in his speech. These include participation in college-preparatory classes by, graduation rates of, qualifications of teachers for and discipline of racial minorities, EL students, disabled students and students with other protected characteristics. The CRDC will also be expanded to survey 7,000 schools this year. This is a 1,000-school increase from the 6,000 schools previously surveyed. CRDC data from 2000 and beyond will now also be accessible to the public at http://ocrdata.ed.gov.