Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Gaps in the Armor: Predictors of Civil Rights Complaints in Pennsylvania's Elementary & Secondary Schools

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Gaps in the Armor: Predictors of Civil Rights Complaints in Pennsylvania's Elementary & Secondary Schools

Article excerpt

The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.

-Romans 13:12


Despite the victories of mid-twentieth century civil rights activists, today's youth of color report experiencing civil rights violations more often than their white peers.1 Youth of color are especially likely to report discrimination at the hands of school personnel.2 Federal law protects students from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and disability,3 but research suggests that the legal machinery for enforcing these rights may be underutilized. One study of eighteen schools from three states found that black students were more likely than white students to say that they would take formal legal action in response to hypothetical civil rights violations, but were no more likely to actually take such action.4 Latino students were less likely than white students to respond to civil rights violations with formal action.5 Because students and parents cannot benefit from civil rights law without engaging the corresponding enforcement mechanisms, underuse of these mechanisms acts as a functional flaw, or gaps in the armor, of civil rights protections.

To shed light on why many violations of student rights go unremedied, this study examines a principal enforcement mechanism: the administrative complaint process of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Although OCR has been the focus of vigorous scholarly discourse,6 the literature features little empirical examination of its enforcement process, especially at the K-12 level.7 This study aims to enrich discourse on OCR by offering a close examination of how the OCR complaint process operates in the K-12 context. To do so, this study uses legal and quantitative analysis to explore the relationship between the characteristics of K-12 schools in Pennsylvania, and the characteristics of OCR complaints filed against those schools.

Part II of this study explains the OCR-administered statutes, regulations, and policy governing discrimination in the K-12 context. Part III describes the data examined in this study, and the statistical techniques used to analyze the data. Part IV provides a summary of the findings from the statistical analysis, and Part V offers an interpretation of those findings. Part VI concludes with recommendations for policymakers, educators, researchers, and advocates.


Elementary and secondary students in Pennsylvania are protected from discrimination under both state8 and federal law. OCR enforces six federal civil rights statutes that protect students and other beneficiaries from discrimination in five domains: race, sex, disability status, age, and affiliation with patriotic societies.9 These statutes apply to charter schools as well as traditional public schools.10 The lion's share of OCR's enforcement effort is claimed by a combination of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (Title VI), which prohibits racial discrimination;11 Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX),12 which prohibits discrimination based on sex; and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504),13 which prohibits discrimination based on disability.14 This Part surveys the regulatory requirements implementing those statutes and describes the process OCR follows to enforce the requirements.

A. Federal Regulations

Like many congressional directives, the antidiscrimination provisions of Title VI, Title IX, and Section 504 are vague. Although the statutes prohibit excluding, denying benefits, or discriminating on the basis of race, sex, or disability, they provide no standards for determining whether a policy or practice violates those prohibitions.15 Instead, Congress directed federal agencies to issue regulations to give content to each statute and to effectuate its objectives.16 Accordingly, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the predecessor of the Department of Education, issued regulations to implement Title VI, Title IX, and Section 504 after the passage of each statute through the notice-and-comment rulemaking process. …

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