A recent surge in complaints to the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights involving students with disabilities and other alleged discrimination likely stems from ramped-up outreach efforts and broader awareness of the agency's willingness to address such complaints, according to advocacy organizations, school administrators, and department officials.
Advocacy groups for students with disabilities welcome the increased vigilance outlined in an April OCR report,
which found that nearly half of all complaints to the civil rights
office continue to involve students with disabilities, with sex- and
race-discrimination complaints making up a lesser part of the caseload.
But some organizations representing school districts and
administrators, while maintaining they are committed to equity in
education, complain in some cases that the federal government is
overreaching its authority, underfunding services, and failing to
consult with education leaders on the best way to resolve concerns.
Assistant Secretary of Education Catherine E. Lhamon said the
record 10,000 complaints in all categories of discrimination filed in
each of the fiscal years 2013 and 2014 send a clear message that her
office is aggressively enforcing civil rights laws designed to end
discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex,
disability, and age in all programs or activities that receive federal
Ensuring a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
Students with disabilities have the same right to K-12 public education that students without disabilities have. In order to receive and benefit from that education, students with disabilities may need special education and/or related aids and services. OCR works to ensure that public elementary and secondary schools, including charter schools, provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to all qualified students with disabilities (generally, students with disabilities who are of school age), regardless of the nature or severity of their disabilities. Section 504 and Title II require public schools to provide appropriate education and aids and related services free of charge to students with disabilities and their parents or guardians. The “appropriate” component means that this education must be designed to meet the individual educational needs of the student as determined through appropriate evaluation and placement procedures. However, students with disabilities must be educated with students without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate.
Additionally, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that provides federal funds for special education, also has FAPE requirements. IDEA is administered by the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS). To the extent that disability harassment adversely affects an elementary or secondary student’s education, it may also constitute a denial of FAPE under the IDEA, as well as a violation of Section 504 and Title II.18
In FY 13–14, OCR resolved 3,725 cases involving allegations that FAPE was denied.