Is the Education Department's civil rights office at a breaking point? – USA TODAY

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war last fall, two of the country’s leading civil rights groups have disagreed on a lot. The Anti-Defamation League, which is dedicated to fighting antisemitism, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy organization, cast the plight of Jewish and Palestinian students in vastly different lights when antisemitic and anti-Muslim incidents spiked on college campuses. 
But they have seen eye-to-eye on one thing: both groups agree the federal office that investigates discrimination complaints in schools lacks the resources to address the mounting pile of reported incidents.
The Office for Civil Rights, an arm of the Education Department, saw complaints rise to the highest level ever last year, according to its recently-released annual report. In fiscal year 2023, the office received 19,201 complaints, a 2% increase from the previous year’s record high of 18,804. 
The office, which Congress flat-funded in fiscal year 2024, has hemorrhaged staff for years and hiring hasn’t kept up. Since 2009, the number of complaints the office received annually has tripled, the agency says. During that span, the average number of full-time staffers dropped by about 70. 
“The office was decimated,” said Miguel Cardona, the education secretary, during a convention for education reporters last week. 
Some outsiders worry the fallout on campuses in response to the Middle East conflict has stressed the office to a breaking point. 
As lawmakers in Washington negotiate the agency’s next annual funding package, it’s unclear whether the recent outrage on Capitol Hill over a rise in campus antisemitism could change the frugal stance of many Republicans. Some of them have called for abolishing the federal Education Department altogether. 
Unlike congressional lawmakers, civil rights groups are in resounding agreement: the office needs more money.
“Is it a good idea to give more funding to this agency? Absolutely,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR’s national deputy director.
In a statement to USA TODAY, Lauren Wolman, the director of government relations at the Anti-Defamation League, shared a similar urgency about addressing the agency’s backlog.
“The OCR cannot protect the rights, safety, and wellbeing of students if it does not have adequate resources to appropriately investigate and respond to its increased caseload,” Wolman said.
A student or staff member at any K-12 school or college that receives federal funding can file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, if they experience discrimination which they believe violated the law. The office, staffed by attorneys and other experts, enforces half a dozen federal anti-discrimination laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Staffers at OCR, including at regional offices around the country, then decide whether those complaints warrant further digging. If there’s sufficient evidence, the division opens an investigation. In cases where the department discovers a violation, federal officials negotiate a resolution with school administrators.
In May, for instance, the department resolved a complaint with Redlands Unified School District in Southern California. The agency concluded that school administrators failed to promptly and effectively respond to reported sexual assaults of students by employees and other students. As part of the agreement, the school said it would overhaul its compliance process.
Schools that refuse to cooperate with a civil rights investigation can risk losing federal funding, and agency officials may refer the matter to the Justice Department.
The tension between a mounting workload and staff retention stretches back for decades within the office.
In 1981, OCR employed about 1,100 full-time staff and received less than 3,000 complaints. Last year, the office had just 556 full-time staff – about half as many employees. Complaints, in the interim, have ballooned by more than six times what they averaged in the 1980s. 
“We are desperately in need of additional support to make sure we can investigate the cases that we have in front of us,” Cardona told lawmakers at a congressional budget hearing in early May. 
The Biden administration has requested a roughly $22 million increase in funding for OCR for fiscal year 2025. That boost would support 86 additional full-time staffers, 90% of whom would work directly on investigating discrimination complaints. 
The administration’s budget request explained that OCR had fielded 145 complaints based on shared ancestry discrimination in the first quarter of fiscal year 2024. That number was more than the office received in the last three fiscal years combined.  
The latest report also shows a slight jump in the past year in disability-related discrimination complaints, from 6,467 to 6,749. 
The growing reliance on OCR to stand up for students and staff with different needs stems from a historic abdication by states of their responsibility to ensure school districts comply with the law, said Denise Marshall, a disability rights advocate and the CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. 
“The states have not done their jobs,” she said. 
As many school districts retool their budgets amid the expiration of federal pandemic relief funds, support staff for vulnerable students may be even less available in the years ahead. 
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The Office for Civil Rights is the main driver behind the Biden administration’s overhaul of Title IX, the law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funding. 
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One of Joe Biden’s campaign promises during his 2020 presidential bid was that he’d rewrite the Trump-era Title IX guidance, which critics said bolstered the rights of people accused of sexual misconduct. Biden’s long-promised rule change wasn’t finalized until April, and the administration has further punted on codifying specific protections for transgender athletes. 
A new slate of rules officially expanding the rights of LGBTQ students and staff is set to take effect Aug. 1, just a few months before Biden comes up for reelection. A handful of Republican states have already challenged the updated guidance in court. 
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Brian Dittmeier, the director of public policy at the LGBTQ education advocacy group GLSEN, said the quick wave of Title IX litigation at the state level only underscores the importance of the federal government’s role in protecting queer and trans students and staff. 
“It’s not necessarily communities that are unsupportive,” he said. “It’s administrators and people in power.”
Zachary Schermele covers education and breaking news for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at [email protected]. Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

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