| January 3, 2011

Are Oklahoma's Noncompliant School Districts Violating Civil Rights Laws?

Oklahoma public schools that violate the civil rights of students risk losing federal education funds, U.S. Department of Education official Jim Bradshaw told CapitolBeatOK recently.

That information may be of particular interest to advocates of, and families with, special-needs schoolchildren—the beneficiaries of a new state law intended to improve their educational options. While state money is involved in the new statute, federal civil rights provisions could still apply.

Complaints about civil rights violations in public schools can be filed at no cost—the process is free, anonymous, and can take as little as six months. However, a complaint must be filed within six months of the alleged civil rights violation.
“Anyone may file a complaint of discrimination, even if they, themselves, are not the ‘injured party,’” Bradshaw explained.

A handful of school districts in the Tulsa area, all advised by a controversial law firm whose fees are under scrutiny from budget-watchers, are so far refusing to recognize the law.

Under the new provision, and arguably under existing federal provisions, when special-needs children transfer out of a district, they take with them the state public school funding from the school they are departing. In short, the money follows the child.

In recent news accounts, one family said they believed their only alternative, in light of the intransigence of the local school board, might be a lawsuit.

If the state of Oklahoma were to sue to force districts to implement the law, it would amount to the state suing itself. And, the outside private law firm in Tulsa could collect fees defending at least some of those districts, as was the case in earlier charter school litigation.

In an interview, Bradshaw said he could not comment on alleged acts of discrimination, or on whether or not Oklahoma’s recent special-needs developments and any efforts to impede the new law might qualify as civil rights violations.

“Each case is different, and we would need to conduct an investigation of any alleged discrimination, examining all of the relevant facts and circumstances before making any determinations,” he told CapitolBeatOK. “We can tell you, however, about the laws we enforce and our complaint process. Two of the five laws deal with disabilities.”

He cited:

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance
  • Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination by public entities on the basis of disability

He said the process under the law is free, anonymous, and that often a resolution is reached in six months, although complex cases may take longer. The federal website stresses any complaint must be filed within six months of the alleged infraction.

These provisions in federal law repeatedly refer to the alleged perpetrator as “the recipient,” a reference to the government agency/school district as the recipient of federal education money. It further provides if the matter is resolved in complainant’s favor, and a federal funding recipient persists in the objectionable behavior, the recipient is subject to termination of federal education funding or referral to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In June, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry signed into law the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Act, giving to families with disabled children already in public school an expanded option of school choice (including access to private providers of educational services)—along with the public funding allocated to their individual benefit.

The law was hailed as a breakthrough for a student subset, arguably most in need but least able to access more tailored, effective education opportunities for their kids. Families with autistic children and many advocates for such children vigorously supported the new law.

In recent months, distraught parents have contacted media, telling often-harrowing stories of their children receiving poor or inadequate opportunities—and even abuse in certain Oklahoma public schools.

Since the Henry Scholarship Act passed, six school districts in the Tulsa metropolitan have publicly declared they will not implement the law, though two have since backtracked.

Several were advised by outside legal counsel, the private Tulsa law firm of Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold. The firm is also at the center of a long-running investigation of Broken Arrow school district finances.

The law firm’s website says it represents 300 of Oklahoma’s roughly 500 public school districts. It is unknown whether other school districts represented by the firm will follow the Tulsa-area schools’ lead.

Stacy Martin is editor of The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City.

Patrick McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK.

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