Monday, February 26, 2018

Federal Data Confirms Earlier Suspicions About Increased Racial Harassment, Begging a Set of New Questions

A 2016 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center of teachers found:

•More than two-thirds of the teachers reported that students—mainly immigrants, children of immigrants and Muslims—have expressed concerns or fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election.
•More than half have seen an increase in uncivil political discourse.
•More than one-third have observed an increase in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment.
•More than 40 percent are hesitant to teach about the election.

Rebecca Klein, at Huffington Post, decided to dig a little deeper and asked those charged with resolving these issues for any data they had.  She offered this summary of the response from the Office for Civil Rights at the Department Education:

The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights division saw a significant increase in the number of complaints it received regarding racial harassment in schools, including post-secondary institutions, in 2017, according to data the department provided to HuffPost. The increase represents the biggest rise in this category since at least 2009, the earliest consecutive year for which we could find publicly reported numbers in this category.

The number of racial harassment discrimination complaints the department’s civil rights division receives has ebbed and flowed over the last nine years. It did not receive more than 600 complaints until fiscal year 2017, when the number climbed to 675, a nearly 25 percent increase from the previous year. Previously, the number had bounced between a low of 362 and a high of 577. 

. . . .

In general, grievances regarding discrimination related to race and national origin appear to have mostly held steady between 2016 and 2017, per documents related to the department’s budget request released last week. But within that category, harassment complaints underwent a specific leap. Other types of complaints that involve race or national origin might cover disproportionate disciplining of minority students or segregation.

This data begs a few questions.  First, does the Office for Civil Rights have the staff to properly investigate the claims?  The prior Assistant Secretary, Catherine Lhamon, requested more staff in her last report to Congress.  She did not receive them.  The new administration, in contrast, has been shrinking the Office's footprint.  Second, what is the Office learning from these harassment claims?  The uptick in complaints does not necessarily translate into more violations of the law.  But given this significant increase, the Office's next report to Congress (or another public report) should explain whether this increase in complaints involves any increase in the seriousness of the underlying harassment.  Likewise, it should explain whether the percentage of valid complaints has remained steady. 

Finally, to the extent those answers suggest a staffing problem or more serious harassment problems, the Office should at the very least consider issuing policy guidance to assist schools in addressing these problems.  The complaints the Office receives are but a sliver of the incidents that occur in schools.  Policy guidance is crucial in assisting schools in proactive steps that can prevent formal problems and complaints from escalating.  Unfortunately, policy guidance has been an area in which the new administration has retreated.  Whatever the merits of other shifts, racial harassment is one of the most problematic violations of Title VI.  Its effect on the individual student and the overall school community cannot be underestimated.

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