OCR investigates North Carolina school district’s student assignment and discipline policies

The News & Observer reports that that the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) will be conducting an investigation of Wake County School Board’s (WCSB) student assignment and discipline policies to determine if  the policies are in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal probe is in response to complaints from the NAACP. If WCSB’s policies are found to be in violation of Title VI, the school district could lose approximately $80 million in federal funding.

OCR’s review comes near the end of a tumultuous year for school board members. Having discarded socioeconomic diversity as a factor in school assignment, as newly elected board members promised voters last fall, the school board now faces not only the federal investigation, but also a review by a national accrediting body. The state and national NAACP alleged in complaints filed in September that the board engaged in racial bias by eliminating diversity in the assignment policy, through student reassignments made this year and in the way minority students are disproportionately suspended. “You can’t run roughshod over the minority because you think you have a political mandate,” Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, said Wednesday. “No election gives you a mandate to break the law.”

However,  those WCSB members who backed the changes in student assignments said they feel confident that the investigation will come out in Wake’s favor. “The charges they made, from our viewpoint, seemed to be invalid and without merit,” said school board Chairman Ron Margiotta. The NAACP also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). A DOJ spokeswoman said  that the department is still considering whether to investigate. The state NAACP is also responsible for a special review being conducted by Advancing Excellence in Education Worldwide, or AdvancED, the Georgia-based group that accredits Wake’s 24 high schools.AdvancED is reviewing nearly every major decision made by the school board over the past year, including the elimination of the diversity policy.

School board member John Tedesco, chairman of the committee that worked for months on a student reassignment plan, said Wake is on firm ground. Any actions taken by the board are vetted by school board attorney Ann Majestic of the Raleigh firm Tharrington Smith, Tedesco noted. “I have much more confidence in Ann Majestic and Tharrington Smith than I do in the random complaint of some naysayers,” Tedesco said. The plan being drawn up by Tedesco, which was shelved last month when board member Debra Goldman defected from the GOP majority, would have divided the county into 16 assignment zones. Critics of the plan complained it would result in the creation of schools, especially in Southeast Raleigh, that have many minority and low-income students. Majestic wasn’t surprised that the complaints were being investigated. But she said she wasn’t worried. “I don’t think the board changing the student assignment policy was racially biased,” Majestic said. “But we’ll cooperate with the process and defend the board.”

Source: News & Observer, 11/18/10, By Keung Hui, Thomas Goldsmith and Mandy Locke

[Editor's Note: In addition to the Title VI probe initiated by the NAACP, the Wake County school system is also the target of a Title IX investigation by OCR that  was instigated by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). According to the New York Times, NWLC  has filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) charging that 12 school districts nationwide, including New York, Chicago and Houston, are violating Title IX by failing to offer equal opportunities to boys and girls who play high school sports. A summary of the article is available at the first link below.

As the News & Observer article noted, in October 2010, WCSB scrapped the draft of its controversial neighborhood student assignment plan. NBC 17 reported that WCSB, in a 5-4 vote,  decided to drop the plan and go back to square one. A summary of the article is available at the second link below.]

NSBA Legal Clips archives on NWLC Title IX compliants

NSBA Legal Clips archives on WCSB student assignment plan

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