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Understanding OCR Complaints, like in Pennridge School District, and Their Role to Ensure Equal Access to High-Quality Public Education

The 77-page filing alleges Pennridge administrators and the school board ignored or dismissed incidents of discrimination and harassment spanning many years.
Photo courtesy of Human Rights Campaign/Ted Eytan.

Almost two weeks have passed since a complaint about the school district was filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Many may ask, what is the purpose of an OCR complaint and how does it impact students, parents, and teachers?

“There should be a procedure in place,” said attorney Ashli Giles-Perkins of the Education Law Center when talking with the Beacon about hostile learning environments and discrimination in public schools. “There should be a way to file a complaint. There should be someone that takes up the issue and sees it through to a resolve.”

Policy 103 – Nondiscrimination in School and Classroom Practices – outlines the internal steps to be taken when situations of this nature occur in the Pennridge School District. Many times, when complaints about discriminatory activity are reported by families to school districts, their grievances are met with silence, Giles-Perkins added.

Some Pennridge students of color and others who identify as LGBTQ+ don’t believe Policy 103 has provided relief from occurrences of discrimination, leaving them no recourse but to file a formal complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.

What is an OCR Complaint

An OCR complaint is not a lawsuit but a vehicle used to launch an investigation to determine if corrective actions are required to comply with assorted federal civil rights laws.

The filing against Pennridge is not seeking financial penalties.

Who may file an OCR Complaint?

Individuals or organizations may submit an OCR complaint if there is reason to believe that a school or educational institution has breached civil rights laws.

READ: Civil Rights Complaint Filed Against Pennridge School District

Legal counsel from the Education Law Center (ELC) and the Advocacy for Racial and Civil Justice Clinic (ARC), part of Penn Carey Law at the University of Pennsylvania, participated in drafting the complaint against the district after extensive research and fact finding.

What discriminatory claims does an OCR complaint address?

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin in programs or activities that receive federal funding;

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972: prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in programs or activities that receive federal funding;

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities that receive federal funding;

Section Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990: prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public schools and universities;

Age Discrimination Act of 1975: prohibits discrimination based on age in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance.

What happens after a complaint is filed?

After a formal complaint is filed, the OCR reviews the allegations, determines whether an  investigation is necessary, and then takes appropriate actions to address any violations found.

How are violations corrected?

Overall, the agency promotes compliance through education. Should a federally funded agency, including a school or a university, fail to develop and incorporate corrective measures, federal funds may be withheld.

According to Giles-Perkins, trainings on inclusivity, making resources available, returning books removed from school libraries, and the revision of policies are some of the ways to remedy specific allegations found within the OCR complaint against Pennridge.

Parts of the complaint allege that some of the district’s newer policies are discriminatory and in violation of Title VI and Title IX.

READ: Pennridge School District’s Proposed Policy on Student Expression Is ‘Extreme’ and ‘Unconstitutional’

In school districts across Pennsylvania, and according to Right-to-Know documents, the Independence Law Center, the legal arm of the far-right religious Pennsylvania Family Council, has been actively crafting policies that are not perceived as inclusive. 

OCR complaints are on the rise, according to Giles-Perkins. “The types of calls we’re getting to our helpline are in districts where we haven’t ever been before, particularly some of the rural districts where there may only be one or two families that have trans or non-binary students,” she said. “We have a lot of callers where we provide advice… but it doesn’t necessarily lead down that road [to the filing of an OCR complaint].”

Giles-Perkins added, “I think Pennridge has just reached a point of this has been going on too long.”

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Jenny Stephens

Jenny Stephens

Jenny Stephens is a freelance journalist who has written for a variety of publications, including The Reporter. An avid collector of all things vintage, she resides in the Philadelphia area.

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