Despite laws to the contrary, many schoolchildren still face barriers to education based on their gender, disability, language, or color, according to Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Justice.
“At OCR, we are about opportunities and the enforcement of education laws,” he said. Perez was the keynote speaker at Friday’s session of the Council of School Attorneys’ (COSA) School Law Seminar, held at the Sheraton Boston Hotel.
He stressed that OCR wanted to work in partnership with school districts to remove these barriers. “Our goal is not to expand our litigation docket,” he said. “It’s to collaboratively solve problems.”
“We have to face some harsh and stark realities,” he said.
He outlined several of those realities, giving citing specific states and school systems as examples.
Many schools remain segregated, he said, mentioning Mississippi where schools with all black students are just miles from schools with all white students. “The lines of race and class all too frequently remain. We are 58 years removed from Brown. It is unacceptable.”
Mentioning another Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, which requires schools to educate undocumented children, Perez said he’d been spending a lot of time visiting Alabama. That state recently passed stringent laws against illegal aliens, which resulted in increased absenteeism and a higher dropout rate in schools.
“It’s the 30th anniversary of Plyler, but, regrettably, these issues are not behind us, but right in our faces,” he said.
Another key civil rights priority is meeting English Language Learner students’ needs, he said. He pointed to the example of Boston Public Schools as a district that worked in partnership with the OCR to address issues of access for ELL students.
Perez addressed some of the controversy surrounding OCR’s guidance last year on bullying in schools. People have questioned whether OCR was “weighing in on the culture wars” with its efforts, to which he emphatically answered: “No! It’s about basic access to education opportunity. Bullying should never be a rite of passage.”
Another issue, which Perez said keeps him up at night, is the “school to prison pipeline.” Some districts are creating and exacerbating this pipeline with harsh discipline policies for seemingly minor offenses. Black and minority students are disproportionately affected by these policies.
He recently attended a town hall meeting in Mississippi, where students talked Draconian punishments for minor item such as uniform violations like having wearing the wrong color socks. In these poor communities, education could a lifeline to these students, he said, but instead students had a sense of “hopelessness and despair.”
These issues are creating what Perez called an “ungeneration” – students that are “uninspired, unhopeful, uninvolved.”
“I want to work on solutions with you,” he told the audience. “I know the school district needs to deal with disruptiveness, but you must be balanced and proportionate on how you deal with that.”
Perez served as Special Counsel to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, and was his principal adviser on civil rights, criminal justice, and constitutional issues. “My former boss often said civil rights remain the unfinished business in America,” he said. “We’ve got way more work to do.