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Here's how school districts, colleges handle civil rights complaints
Education officials invest time, money investigating claims but few result in violates
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University of North Georgia students walk across the campus between classes on Jan. 10, 2018, at the Gainesville campus. - photo by Scott Rogers

Complaints of racial discrimination, sexual harassment and inadequate access to instruction and support services for disabled persons in school districts and colleges are among the most common cases investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

The number of these cases substantiated and requiring a remedy increased during the administration of President Barack Obama but has fallen since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, according to an online searchable database developed by ProPublica, an investigative news firm, and using public Department of Education records.

A review of the database by The Times found that local public school districts and universities have faced several complaints in the period ProPublica analyzed, January 2015 to April 2018.

But most of the complaints, whether filed during the Obama or Trump administration, have been closed without any corrective action required.

For example, Gainesville City Schools has had just one civil rights complaint made against it since 2015 and the case was concluded with no findings of violations because of insufficient evidence to infer discrimination.

Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams said that when informed of a complaint, officials take immediate steps to “pull any documentation related to the complaint, including emails, texts, statements ...”

Williams also said administration contacts its attorneys for guidance.

“Every complaint is taken seriously and provides us an opportunity to review policies and procedures if corrective action is needed,” he added. 

Frivolous claims are often accompanied by valid concerns about equal access to education for all students, local officials said.

Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County Schools, said “complaints in public schools are quite common” and that the process is “time consuming and costly to the local school district.” 

“To complicate the process even further, individuals who claim to be ‘advocates’ often encourage families to pursue this avenue when a child is struggling,” Schofield added. 

Schofield said he has argued for years that a vehicle to review and dismiss frivolous complaints quickly to prevent costly legal fights and “discourage claims with no merit.” 

Fourteen complaints have been lodged against the school district since 2015, with five pending that were only this year filed, eight resolved with no violations or wrongdoing found and one case with corrective changes documented. 

“In my time at this district, we have spent tens of thousands of dollars responding to these complaints,” Schofield said. “Almost all complaints end up with no findings, and when there is a finding, it is generally an issue that could have been solved with an open 15-minute conversation over a cup of coffee.” 

The Office of Civil Rights receives more than 10,000 complaints annually. 

According to ProPublica’s analysis, “under Obama, 51 percent of cases that took more than 180 days culminated in findings of civil rights violations, or corrective changes. Under the Trump administration, that rate has dropped to 35 percent.”

Moreover, the Department of Education has closed more than 1,200 investigations that were launched during the Obama administration that lasted at least six months, each without any findings of wrongdoing. 

But differentiating between a superficial complaint and one with credence remains difficult. That’s why school administrators urge taking a proactive approach and addressing complaints in-house when possible.

Ed Schrader, president of Brenau University, said any student, faculty or staff is free to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights “without having us as an intervening factor, whatsoever.”

Brenau has had just one complaint filed against it since 2015 and the investigation closed with no violations found or corrective action needed because the complainant withdrew the allegation, refused to give information or could not be reached. 

“That really means we must be handling issues ... in a satisfactory manner,’ Schrader said. 

He added that the university’s proactive approach to handling concerns of discrimination, particularly among students, helps alleviate the need for complaints to rise to the level of a federal investigation. 

“What we do on the front end ... we bend over backward to find out what those needs are before they come to campus,” he said, speaking about one incident with a disabled student who had special housing needs. 

The university decided to build an apartment for the student and her grandmother to reside in. 

“How do you make sure people respect each other?” Schrader asked rhetorically, adding that the university’s theme for this year has been “conversation not confrontation.” 

Grievances can also be taken to a university committee made up of students and faculty, which includes an extensive review and appeals process. 

“The fact is they are our students and we have to help them work in a civil framework,” Schrader said. 

The University of North Georgia also acted proactively and provided corrective action on its own accord when resolving a complaint in October 2015 before the investigation concluded. 

“A student filed a complaint alleging discrimination on the basis of disability when he was not consistently provided with note-taking services for a specific course,” UNG spokeswoman Sylvia Carson told The Times in an email. “When alerted to the concern, the university investigated the situation and resolved the complaint by addressing the student’s needs and conducting staff training to prevent future concerns.”

Carson said UNG is “committed to ensuring all students have equal access to a college education regardless of the presence or absence of a disability.”

She added that complaints of discrimination are reviewed by human resources officials, while students can independently file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.

Based on data provided by ProPublica for January 2015-April 2018

Civil rights investigations in schools

Gainesville City Schools

Number of cases: 1

Pending: 0

Resolved with no wrongdoing: 1 (Closed November 2016 with no findings of violations of corrective action needed; insufficient evidence to infer discrimination or noncompliance)

Resolved with corrective action: 0

Hall County School District

Number of cases: 14

Pending: 5 (one regarding sexual violence, one for racial harassment, one for disability access, one for student discipline and one regarding access for English Language Learners)

Resolved with no wrongdoing: 8

Resolved: 1 (with unknown violations and corrective changes documented) 

University of North Georgia

Number of cases: 6

Pending: 0

Resolved with no wrongdoing: 5 

Resolved with corrective action: 1 (A resolution agreement made in October 2015 before end of investigation regarding auxiliary aids and services)

Brenau University

Number of cases: 1

Pending: 0

Resolved with no wrongdoing: 1 (Investigation closed in 2015 with no violations found or corrective action taken; complainant withdrew allegation, refused to give information or could not be reached)

Resolved with corrective action: 0

Dawson County Schools

Number of cases: 1

Pending: 0

Resolved with no wrongdoing: 1 (Closed November 2016 with no findings of violations of corrective action needed; insufficient evidence to infer discrimination or non-compliance)

Resolved with corrective action: 0

Buford City Schools

Number of cases: 3

Pending: 0

Resolved with no wrongdoing: 3 (each with no violations found or corrective action taken involving complaints regarding disability access and student discipline)

Resolved with corrective action: 0

Forsyth County Schools

Number of cases: 8

Pending: 2 (complaints regarding disability access and denial of benefits under investigation since August 2015)  

Resolved with no wrongdoing: 6 (each with no violations found or corrective action taken involving complaints of racial harassment, disability access and student disciplinary measures)

Resolved with corrective action: 0

Source: ProPublica; U.S. Department of Education 

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