Two lawyers from the Obama administration answered questions from Council of School Attorneys (COSA) members at the opening general session Thursday of the 2014 School Law Seminar in New Orleans. The meeting is held in conjunction with NSBA’s Annual Conference.
Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education Catherine Lhamon and Anurima Bhargava, chief of the educational opportunities section, Civil Rights Division, at the U.S. Department of Justice, took questions from school district lawyers on a wide range of topics, including reasons for OCR investigations and the recent guidance on students with disabilities and extracurricular activities.
Lhamon spoke briefly about the mission and purpose of OCR. “Education is a civil rights issue,” she said. “That is the work we are doing at the Department of Education. We hope we can work together to deliver that justice.”
COSA lawyers lined up to ask questions of the two women. One lawyer wanted to know what she should do about what she termed “frequent flyers” — employees who file constant complaints and grievances. “It’s burden for us to get the data,” she said. “Every one of those [complaints] have come back as unfounded. Is there anything we can do to bring to your attention that this is an every-month occurrence?”
OCR is required by law to investigate any compliant, said Lhamon, “but we are looking at ways to ease” the frequent flyer problem.
Bhargava noted that her office did not have the same legal obligation to investigate every complaint. “We know there are the frequent flyers,” she said. “We try to be mindful of that. We are looking for ways to coordinate so you are not answering multiple complaints.”
Another question was about the school board obligation to look into matters such as student disciplinary decisions, which boards traditionally leave to district staff.
“We haven’t put out guidance about what boards should do,” Lhamon answered. “We want our school staff, boards, parents, and teachers to be thinking about what to ask. Boards do defer to staff, but you can ask and look underneath. Boards can make the decision when and where to ask those questions.”
Bhargava encouraged board member to look at the OCR data. “The data helps identify where there are issues. Everyone is empowered to use the data and ask questions.”
The School Law Seminar runs through Saturday.