The federal education department's Office for Civil Rights is conducting seven investigations against Rapid City Area Schools, the most in South Dakota and more than twice the number of any other district in the state.
The high number of investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office, experts say, is not in itself troubling. What's important is whether these discrimination investigations involving race and disability point to systemic wrongdoing within the district.
A school district official said the district needed to make some changes and that it was working closely with the Office for Civil Rights to quickly resolve the open cases. Two have been pending for close to eight years.
“Certainly, you don’t put a school district under the microscope like that unless you have some reason to do it,” said Seth Galanter, a children's rights lawyer and senior OCR official during the Obama Administration.
The Rapid City school district expects most of the investigations to be finished within six months to a year, said Matthew Seebaum, assistant superintendent of student services, who monitors the investigations' progress. “In the last two years, we are very much moving the district up so we are much like other districts in the nation that are performing well and innovating,” he said.
The Office for Civil Rights enforces U.S. laws that prohibit discrimination — on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability and age — among K-12 and post-secondary educational institutions that receive federal financial aid.
The local school district, made up of 23 schools, received $2.7 million in federal assistance in the 2017-2018 school year, or 7 percent of its total budget. It enrolled nearly 14,000 students last school year.
OCR is responsible for investigating plausible complaints, so an investigation doesn’t automatically mean a violation has occurred. Sometimes, one complaint triggers a chain reaction of other complaints.
“It’s the breadth of the problem that you wanna be careful to examine,” said Jim Hanks, an education lawyer in Iowa who has headed the National School Boards Association’s Council of School Attorneys. “Are there good policies in place? Are there protections for people? Do they get used? Are they implemented appropriately?”
It’s important, Hanks said, to look at any recurring patterns among the complaints and the gravity of the accusations.
The longest-running investigations against Rapid City Area Schools go back to December 2010, and the most recent to March of this year, according to OCR records as of June 1. Five allege discrimination based on race and national origin; the other two, disability.
The Journal obtained redacted information on the five oldest cases through a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Department of Education. The two most recent investigations were opened after the newspaper's FOIA request had been processed. This story also utilizes documents on closed cases, which were obtained by a community member and sent to the Journal.
The civil rights office describes the two oldest investigations, opened on Dec. 23, 2010, as “proactive compliance reviews.” These OCR-initiated reviews assess whether institutions that fall under its purview follow federal anti-discrimination laws.
According to a letter OCR sent the Rapid City school district, the reviews will look into two issues. The issues are “whether the District maintains policies and procedures that discriminate against American Indian students, specifically concerning discipline, and access to the District’s gifted and talented education program and advanced placement courses.”
The letter provided no other details about the reviews, which were classified as race and national origin cases. Seven pages, listing information that OCR requested from the district, were redacted because they could interfere with enforcement proceedings.
The civil rights office said review sites are selected based on a variety of information sources, such as statistical data and input from parents, advocacy groups, the media and community organizations. A U.S. Department of Education spokesman declined to tell the Journal what prompted the local district reviews, citing the ongoing investigations.
Seebaum said these two cases are “technically closed” after the district made changes in accordance with an OCR agreement during the 2011-2012 school year. He said the district is now in “full compliance,” but the agreement included keeping the cases open till December 2021, during which the civil rights office can conduct spot checks.
“It stays open because they wanna make sure we not only fix something in the short term, but it becomes part of how we do business long term,” Seebaum said, adding that one of the reviews involves changing how high schools select members of their athletic teams.
He said the reviews were started under the tenure of former district superintendent Peter Wharton, and the agreement was reached during the time of his successor, Tim Mitchell. The current superintendent, Lori Simon, took over in July 2016, following Mitchell’s departure.
The compliance reviews are notable not just because of the time they’ve been open, but because the civil rights office initiated more than one against the same district, said Galanter, the former OCR official, who used to oversee the supervisors of school district investigations. “Both suggest that this is going to require some really big systems change,” he said.
Teaching students with disabilities
Two investigations were opened in October in response to complaints by two women who worked for the school district. They said the district discriminated against students with disabilities, as well as retaliated against the complainants.
The civil rights office notified Simon, in two letters, that it will investigate the issues below based on the women's August 2016 complaints.
One was whether the district discriminates against students with disabilities by “systematically denying them a free appropriate public education” in two ways: failing to identify and conduct timely evaluations of students suspected of having dyslexia and other disabilities, as well as imposing a cap on the number of students who can be evaluated for dyslexia and other disabilities and receive the appropriate help.
Dyslexia is a learning disability that involves difficulty with reading and writing letters or numbers. In October 2015, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to help states and local school districts recognize the unique needs of students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia.
The letters said also that OCR will look into whether Rapid City Area Schools retaliated against one complainant because she filed a discrimination and harassment complaint with the district and because she advocated for South Dakota House Bill 1198, a proposed state law in 2016 that would recognize dyslexia as a learning disability.
For the other complainant, OCR said it will investigate whether the district retaliated against her after she filed a discrimination complaint with the district.
Seebaum said the district doesn’t engage in blaming, and that its public schools aim to be a place for all students. He said the district is already doing more than required in the realm of special education, but that it can’t accede to all the requests of advocacy groups because it has to serve the general school population.
“We have to always strike the right balance,” Seebaum said. “We have to find that spot where we are looking at the needs of all students and then, how do we meet the needs of students that need specialized attention.”
Complaints involving race
An investigation opened in March 2017 stemmed from a parent who complained that the district treated his/her son differently because he was Native American.
Details about the complaint were redacted, because they involved private information that could be found in personnel and medical files. The notification letter that OCR sent Simon didn’t specify if the complainant was the father or mother.
The two most recent investigations were opened about three months ago, on March 29. They’re looking into alleged retaliation and denial of benefits because of discrimination based on race and national origin. These cases were not yet open when the Journal made its FOIA request in December.
But there was one ongoing investigation then that has since been closed: A race discrimination case opened on Dec. 11.
A parent told the civil rights office he/she filed a complaint with the school district, alleging “student-on-student race harassment” after another student called his/her son “a racially derogatory name.” The district’s investigation supposedly found the allegation unsubstantiated, and no students were disciplined.
OCR said it will investigate whether the district discriminated against the complainant’s son by “failing to adequately respond to race-based peer harassment of which the District had or should have had notice and which was sufficient to constitute a hostile environment.”
The case was resolved in an agreement between the civil rights office and the district in March, an attorney with the U.S. education department told the Journal. Resolution documents are published on the OCR website, but that agreement has not yet been posted.
Seebaum, who was an educator in Texas and Colorado as well as an education consultant before joining Rapid City Area Schools last year, said there’s often a rise in civil rights cases within communities that are experiencing racial tensions.
Seebaum said he and Simon have been “working very hard to mend fractured relationships” with the local Native American community. The district, he said, takes civil rights complaints seriously and responds to them quickly rather than going into “defense mode.”
During the 10-year period from November 2007 to July 2017, the civil rights office resolved 19 complaints against Rapid City Area Schools.
According to documents a community member obtained through a FOIA request, these cases were closed for a variety of reasons: the case was forwarded to another federal agency; the complainant didn’t follow the proper filing procedure; a similar complaint had already been filed with the school district or another federal agency; the reporting party withdrew the complaint; the civil rights office didn’t find a violation of the laws it enforces; and OCR found the allegation unsubstantiated.
In three of the 19 cases, the district voluntarily resolved the complaint before OCR could reach a finding. In one case, it signed an agreement to make changes after the civil rights office found merit with the complaint. The cases involved either accusations of discrimination based on race, sex, disability or a combination of race and disability. These complaints took between six months and three-and-a-half years to be resolved.
Entering into an agreement to resolve a complaint isn’t automatically an admission of wrongdoing, said Hanks, the education lawyer. School districts decide to settle after weighing the costs of a protracted investigation versus making changes the civil rights office requires.
“In your heart of hearts you don’t think you did anything wrong, and you could prove it,” Hanks said. “But the cost of proving it would prolong the process of appeal and spend a lot of money.”
Seebaum expects three of the seven open cases to be resolved within six months and another two cases within a year. The district, he said, is voluntarily resolving cases and OCR isn't sending people to the district to do on-site investigations.
Seebaum acknowledged the school district still has work to do but that it’s determined to keep improving.
“We are moving forward, and we are approaching what I would consider being right there with the median of the United States of where schools are,” he said.