On May 31, COPAA, The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit against the U.S. Department of Education, Secretary Betsy DeVos and Candice Jackson, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, to challenge the Department’s changes to its complaint handling process to strip students with disabilities and students of color of their rights.
COPAA’s national network of 2100+ members works to protect the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities and their families. Our members are at work wherever the voices of families and students need to be heard and COPAA supports them with resources, training, and information to assist in obtaining the equal opportunity for education those children deserve and are entitled to under federal law. However, in its 20 year history, COPAA itself, has never before filed litigation on behalf of its members. We have had to take that extraordinary step for the first time because a federal agency has unlawfully abdicated its responsibility to enforce the civil rights of students.
In March, 2018, the federal Department of Education amended the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Case Processing Manual unilaterally and without public notice and comment. The changes include new provisions to mandatorily dismiss certain complaints and the elimination of complainants’ right to appeal OCR decisions. It is the legal responsibility and stated mission of OCR to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools. As part of that mission, OCR is supposed to investigate complaints made under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Titles VI and IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 concerning individual or systemic claims of discrimination. By opting out of that mission and abdicating its responsibility, OCR is pushing the responsibility for civil rights enforcement onto the shoulders of students and their families and advocates – onto COPAA’s members – who do not have the resources of the federal government at their disposal.
Students with disabilities have the right to learn free from discrimination in our nation’s public schools. The right of a parent to go to the OCR to raise claims of illegal discrimination is an important tool for halting discrimination in its tracks. Utilizing complaints from parents or others, OCR has served as a civil rights enforcement agency, protecting the rights of some of the nation’s most vulnerable students without having to go to court. However, by changing its Case Processing Manual, DOE has summarily eliminated substantive rights of the very people it purports to serve. And they did this without public notice, without seeking or considering public input, without rationale, and in violation of their own regulations.
The complaint asks the court to declare parts of the Case Processing Manual invalid and prohibit the Department from implementing them.
COPAA is represented in this litigation by Eve Hill and Brooke Lierman of Brown Goldstein & Levy of Baltimore.