Education Department Starts Addressing Discrimination Cases Related To COVID-19

For months, the agency had failed to process complaints of discrimination against students during the pandemic. Now it appears to be taking some steps forward.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens during an Aug. 12 White House meeting about reopening schools during the pandemic
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens during an Aug. 12 White House meeting about reopening schools during the pandemic
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

After spending months failing to make meaningful progress on complaints of coronavirus-related discrimination in schools, the Education Department has started opening investigations into some of these allegations, HuffPost has learned, even though the department denies it has changed gears.

In November, HuffPost first reported that attorneys in the department’s Office for Civil Rights said they had not been able to move forward on these complaints. But at that time, a spokesperson for the Department of Education denied it had failed to make progress on the investigations.

“This information is categorically false and represents the viewpoint of a low-level employee who has not been fully informed or brought up to speed on the clear directive given by HQ to move forward on all COVID cases without delay,” spokesperson Angela Morabito told HuffPost in early November.

However, HuffPost had reviewed a September email from regional leadership sent to a group of employees explaining that discrimination complaints related to COVID-19 would require scrutiny from the highest levels of management in an effort to form a consistent response to unprecedented issues. This essentially left the cases in limbo, with attorneys unable to move forward.

Morabito now denies, though, that any change in processing the complaints has taken place, though some complaints seem to be moving forward on a case-by-case basis. There has not been official communication stating that the Department of Education changed its overall processing of these complaints, sources told HuffPost.

One DOE employee said that they just recently were given a greenlight to move ahead on COVID-19 cases. (HuffPost is providing anonymity for current employees out of concern they could face professional repercussions.)

Additionally, several families who work with disability rights advocate Marcie Lipsitt got word last month that their discrimination cases were moving forward. These families say that their children have failed to receive the education services they’re entitled to during the pandemic.

In one instance, a family told the Education Department in August that their child was being discriminated against on the basis of disability because their school district had failed to provide mandated speech and language services from March 2020 until the end of the school year. The Education Department didn’t respond to the complaint until late November.

In its response, the department said it would open an investigation into whether the school district had failed to provide a free and appropriate public education, in violation of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which bans discrimination based on disability.

The department’s response to the complaint also directly referenced COVID-19 and how it might affect school district operations.

Earlier in the fall, when Lipsitt inquired about the delayed responses to COVID-19 complaints, an Office for Civil Rights attorney told her that these cases were receiving greater scrutiny than other complaints and that rewriting allegations without referring to the pandemic could help them get processed faster. A mother who filed a complaint, Stephanie Onyx, was told the same.

At the time, attorneys in the civil rights office told HuffPost that they were concerned the department had failed to make meaningful progress on cases that raised urgent issues of discrimination linked to the pandemic.

“That’s kind of consistent with what we’ve come to expect. We have a staff of skilled, passionate attorneys who want to do their jobs, and I think many of us feel like we just can’t,” a current attorney told HuffPost last month.

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