As recently as June 2, 2015, the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a scathing report on the Chicago public school system detailing their failure to adequately protect immigrant students. Included in the report were the infamous characterizations of the 600,000 students of color at the school system as “the country’s largest school district” and “the nation’s seventh largest city.” The report cited “years of inadequate monitoring and enforcement in an interagency system plagued by poor data collection, supervisory turnover, and ineffective policies and procedures.” The report stated that the bullying and harassment of students resulted in countless disciplinary actions:
“A school principal noted that a student was sent out of class and placed in a room alone without being offered any explanation for the decision. If a principal felt that he or she had the authority to do so, the student might be placed out of class with no parent or guardian present. A student was placed in a room after participating in a fight at a school where he or she had previously been suspended … An attendance supervisor reported that he or she was able to place a student, after being threatened by the student’s friends, on a “time out” because they failed to follow the threat’s instructions.”
Chicago Public Schools and the federal government’s Office for Civil Rights simply did not monitor the Chicago school system for what was called for in a federal law which gives federal education officials oversight of school districts. For ten years, in other words, federal education officials in Washington DC failed to do their job to protect vulnerable students while this Chicago School District systematically and maliciously treated immigrant students as though they were undocumented or people of color.
To be sure, there were serious problems in Chicago and elsewhere. But this entire list of neglect, especially for so many immigrant students, runs counter to anything Bill Clinton would have said about how to protect young people: “If we, the American people, don’t care enough about what’s happening to these children, then we have to do something about it.”
In 2014, these same Chicago School Districts were hit with a mass bullying lawsuit alleging systemic youth harassment of female students based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. Again, there was minimal federal oversight. Federal civil rights workers sat idly by while predominantly black and brown students were targeted by gangs and then punished with drug and alcohol suspensions, school-based probationary periods, and lengthy, sometimes indefinite, emergency sessions in order to get them to drop criminal charges. Again, they lacked enforcement of the federal law, Section 504 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that was named for King’s civil rights martyrs because it gives the federal government the power to stop unwarranted discrimination against children in the schools.
For instance, in 2013, Malcolm X College in New York, was sued for bullying a lesbian student through the school’s “confrontation” training program. Unfortunately, a federal judge summarily dismissed the lawsuit on a technicality, stating that the “charges were not brought by a viable victim who had the requisite ‘capacity to succeed.'” To this day, civil rights advocates say the inclusion of gender discrimination and the sexual orientation discrimination have yet to receive formal review and oversight of school districts by the federal government.
Furthermore, parents like Maria Habib Tamini, who has been fighting against bullying of her child and other students at her daughter’s New York City public school since 2007, are still fighting the federal government for their accountability for their own system’s actions. In a just suit against New York City Public Schools, the city’s Office of Civil Rights was required to use the same federal criteria as they did in Chicago when considering disciplinary consequences for a student in a particular case. Although the federal evaluation found that the discipline constituted “inappropriate disciplinary actions” they chose to take no action. Instead, they recommended that their city’s school administrators craft a plan to be more consistent with the law and cease the arbitrary use of suspensions and disciplinary consequences against children with whom they do not agree. New York City is not the only public school district that does not have standards to consistently protect children with diverse and very different experiences of school. At a time when federal government agencies like the Office for Civil Rights, as well as the Department of Education, have minimal oversight of school districts, it is appalling that they are still deifying the schools as a method of victim-blaming.