There at least 23 open investigations into alleged civil rights violations — most on the basis of disability, sex or race — in elementary and high schools across seven Utah school districts that receive federal funding.
For the first time, the U.S. Department of Education has released a searchable database of ongoing cases at the K-12 level — a step many advocates say is important for transparency and to address systemic or cultural issues affecting young students.
“Parents need to have good information about whether or not they’re sending their child to an unsafe school or if there have been a history of problems at that school,” said Philip Kahn-Pauli, policy director for RespectAbility, a nonprofit group that supports people with disabilities.
“This database, while it’s limited in the information it provides, is still one step closer to make sure parents have the opportunity to pursue the best education possible for their children,” he said.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) database is best known for its compilation of campus sexual assault investigations pending at universities and colleges.
The K-12 entries contain limited details, but show the date a case was opened, the school district it was filed against and the nature of the complaint. Salt Lake City School District and Provo School District have the most open cases, with nine and six complaints, respectively.
A district’s inclusion on the list doesn’t necessarily mean it violated federal antidiscrimination laws. Rather, it indicates someone filed a complaint and that the OCR has opened an investigation into the district.
Michael Clara, a former member of the Salt Lake City School District Board of Education, filed several of the open cases in that district and said the newly public database is an important way to hold the organization accountable.
“The more closed [the system] is, the more they’re able to get away with,” Clara said. “If you take away transparency from a government agency then there’s no accountability because there’s nobody there to question anything.”
One of his open complaints from 2015 alleges that students of color are unfairly targeted for disciplinary action and that school-based police officers are disproportionately assigned to areas that are racially diverse.
“Salt Lake City School District has been and remains committed to providing a working and learning environment free from harassment, prohibited discrimination, and retaliation,” wrote Jason Olsen, a district spokesman, in a statement. “When a complaint is filed with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the review and resolution process can be lengthy, sometimes taking years. We have provided the OCR with the information and data they have requested and will provide whatever assistance we can as the OCR works to complete their investigations.”
However, Clara said he believes there is “absolutely” a culture of systemic civil rights abuses within the Salt Lake City School District.
“The high number [of complaints] is an expression of people’s frustration because the district will refuse even on the board level and superintendent level to address these issues,” he said.
Olsen said he would “completely disagree” with assertions of structural inequities within the district.
“Our mission statement is equity and excellence, every student, every classroom, every day — and those aren’t just words, that’s our focus,” he said, noting the district has an equity department and other programs to ensure teachers can provide every student the opportunity to be successful.
The complaints filed against the Provo School District all date back to April 2014 and include allegations of gender and disability harassment and retaliation.
Caleb Price, a spokesman for Provo School District, said the complaint was filed against the head coach of a school and that the district has worked since with OCR to “determine the validity of the complaint and also influence any necessary changes.”
“As a result of that investigation, Provo School District received only minor policy monitoring recommendations, which have since been implemented,” Price said, noting that the district has followed up with OCR but not heard back since July 2015, when a new investigator was assigned to the case.
The Utah oldest complaint in the database dates back to May 2010 in the San Juan School District. The most recent was filed less than six months ago in the Salt Lake City School District.
Aaron Kinikini, legal director of the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City, said extended time frames are typical of OCR complaints on the post-secondary education level particularly.
“I would have hoped that you wouldn’t see that same lag or, you know, bottleneck or whatever in the K-12 because kids grow so fast and one school year is super important,” he said. “If a kid doesn’t catch up to where he’s supposed to be and isn’t given the services, they fall behind quickly and it just snowballs. So the fact that they have [older cases] is a little troubling.”
San Juan School District Superintendent Ron Nielson said it has “completed and cooperated” with OCR through every step of the investigation and wasn’t sure why the process had taken eight years.
He noted that the district has made a number of changes as a result of the complaint, and has been required to look at its discipline practices to ensure the same infraction receives the same treatment from school to school.
“We’ve made great efforts to educate and to work with our administrators to understand this, to understand how we will move forward in a consistent manner and ensuring that we are treating all students equally,” he said, adding that he expects the case to wrap up soon.
Filing a complaint with the OCR is as easy as going online and filling out a form, Kinikini said. There are several ways to advocate for change at a school, if going through the district or school board produces none, he said, including the Legislature, the courts or an OCR complaint. The former is not only the least expensive but also may lead to change most quickly.
“If you file a complaint alleging some discriminatory bullying or harassment and retaliation, it’s going to stop most likely when the school district finds that they’ve been named in a civil rights complaint with a federal enforcement agency,” Kinikini said.
There’s been a spotlight on OCR investigations on college campuses amid recent national conversations about Title IX, a federal law that protects people from discrimination based on sex. But many parents are unaware that they have the same outlet for resolving civil rights issues — whether based on sex, religion, race or another protected status — on the elementary and high school levels.
“It’s not like kids come home at the beginning of the school year with a flyer that says, ‘Hey, there’s this great federal agency that you can bring any complaints to that have to do with civil rights, and here’s the link, and it’s really easy to file a complaint,” Kinikini said. “But, you know, that’s what it’s there for... And I would bet that probably 10 percent of parents know that there’s a thing called OCR. Maybe less.”