Does Federal Civil Rights Enforcement Impact Racial Discrimination in School Discipline?

Headshot of a woman wearing glassesRachel Perera joined the SDP network to share her analysis and findings of OCR investigations from 1999-2019, exploring whether OCR’s enforcement impacts school discipline practices.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces federal civil rights laws (including Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) in schools by investigating complaints of racial discrimination. Until now, the impact of those investigations on school discipline practices was unknown, even as racial disparities in school discipline have been widely documented.

Rachel Perera, assistant policy researcher at RAND Corporation and Ph.D. candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, obtained 20 years of OCR records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to better understand this policy lever. In a recent webinar with the SDP Network, she shared findings from her working paper, A Promise Unfulfilled? How Modern Federal Civil Rights Enforcement is Used to Address Racial Discrimination in School Discipline, in which she explores the processes and trends around OCR’s civil rights enforcement efforts in cases focused on racial discrimination in school discipline.

How does OCR enforce civil rights law?

Perera first deconstructed the OCR civil rights investigation process, which begins when someone files a complaint of racial discrimination with OCR under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Her data reveal that OCR receives approximately 200-300 racial discrimination complaints related to school discipline each year, against approximately 200 school districts. This number remained relatively steady across the twenty years she reviewed. 

Once OCR receives a complaint, it assesses the case and determines whether to investigate or dismiss the complaint. Investigations can lead to voluntary mediation or resolution agreements with the district, or a finding of non-compliance. If a school district is found out of compliance, they risk losing their federal aid or further judicial action. According to Perera’s research, OCR only investigates 30-50% of cases each year, and most investigations are closed with a finding of no violation or insufficient evidence (70-80% of cases). In the small percentage of cases in which corrective action is required, it is almost always voluntary. As of 2019, hundreds of cases remained open, in part because investigations can last several years. 


The OCR investigation process, as illustrated by Perera.


Total investigations initiated and investigation outcomes from 1999 to 2018.

Although OCR is run by political appointees, and policy guidance changes across Presidential Administrations, Perera found no substantial differences in how investigations were managed across Administrations from 1999-2019. She did note that investigation times increased slightly around the same time President Obama released policy guidance requiring more systematic reviews of complaints.

Which schools receive racial discrimination complaints?

By merging OCR data with a variety of other public sources, including the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data, the Stanford Education Data Archive, and the Civil Rights Data Collection, Perera identified trends related to the types of school districts that receive OCR complaints and investigations.

Her analyses showed that the most significant predictors of whether a school district receives a complaint are school district size and share of Black enrollment. Specifically, larger school districts and districts with 40-60% Black enrollment are more likely to receive a complaint. In her report, Perera notes that these findings are consistent with predictions from racial threat theory, and concludes that, “civil rights concerns may be positively associated with levels of racial threat and social control.” Slightly smaller in magnitude but still statistically meaningful, levels of racial segregation and educational inequality are also predictors of complaints. Among districts that receive civil rights complaints, Perera found that very few observable district traits predict whether OCR will open an investigation.

Does OCR’s enforcement impact school discipline practices?

Perera shared preliminary findings from a paper she will be releasing later this year, in which she dives further into the data to examine the impact of OCR investigations on student outcomes. She theorized that OCR investigations could impact students directly by requiring school districts to alter policies and practices to limit discriminatory discipline practices, or indirectly, by bringing public attention to the issue or inciting fear of sanctions among district officials, which could also lead to changed discipline practices.

Using an event study design, Perera compared changes in suspension rates in districts investigated by OCR to districts not yet investigated and those never investigated by OCR. Notably, Perera found that OCR investigations related to racial discrimination in school discipline do not have any measurable impact on suspension rates or test scores. While she mentioned that her study estimates the effect of OCR initiating an investigation, not the effect of any resulting enforcement sanctions, she also pointed out that the results indicate that “civil rights enforcement alone may be insufficient to address long-standing disparities.”

Implications for the field

OCR is under-resourced and understaffed, which often leads to narrowly scoped and slow investigations, according to experts Perera interviewed. She quoted one civil rights attorney, who told her, “we have just felt like OCR is a paper tiger. It doesn’t actually do enforcement.” At the same time, the OCR complaint process may be underutilized by students and families given limited information about how to access this relatively low cost avenue for addressing civil rights concerns. Access to better information and supportsmay empower families to leverage the process to address concerns of racial discrimination. 

Perera recommends that Congress provide OCR with additional funding to better fulfill – and strengthen – its civil rights enforcement responsibilities. There is also a need for the education research community to develop more evidence-based disparity reduction practices  to aid OCR investigators in their efforts to reduce racial disparities in school discipline. Lastly, Perera emphasized that the lack of publicly available data on OCR investigations inhibits researchers' abilities to study this policy lever and more public information on OCR’s civil rights enforcement activities is needed. 

Rachel Perera is an assistant policy researcher at RAND Corporation and a Ph.D. candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

For the full video of Perera's presentation click here.

This post was written in collaboration with Rachel Perera and Kerry McKittrick, a Master's Candidate at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.