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U.S. Civil Rights Office opens probe of school district


The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into whether the Indian River County School District discriminated against black students, acting on a complaint filed more than two years ago.

The federal agency, which is responsible for ensuring equal access to education, finally decided to take the case in September.  It is seeking to determine whether the local School District violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin, OCR Attorney Scott Sausser said in a letter.

The complainant, Dr. Jacqueline Warrior, is currently local-branch NAACP education chairperson. 

If the investigation determines the School District was discriminating against black students, follow-up steps range from a “transition plan” to correct discriminatory practices to a cut off of federal funding.

The local School District will receive about $24 million in federal funding this year, about half related to food programs and the other half to educational programs, according to budget documents.

Warrior said she filed the complaint in June 2015, “because, at the time, the desegregation order seemed dead in the water, yet the issues addressed in it – and by this time, other issues – continued to plague students in our school district. I was not a member of the NAACP at the time and therefore had no standing in regard to the desegregation order.”

The Indian River County School Board has been under a court order to desegregate its schools since 1968. The order was amended in 1994, laying out eight areas for improvement.  The School Board recently petitioned the U.S. District Court in Miami to lift court oversight of three areas, claiming African-American non-teaching and teaching staff ratios are sufficient and that building facilities have been equalized for black and white students.

The local NAACP was named the plaintiff or representative of African-American school-district parents, staff and students in the 1994 amended order. It is fighting the School District’s claims, seeking to keep the desegregation order in force in its entirety and asking the District Court to strengthen oversight and monitoring.

In September, the Office of Civil Rights dismissed half of Warrior’s complaints which were also covered in the desegregation order, and then narrowed the remaining two. OCR Attorney Scott Sausser cited the “Case Processing Manual,” which states if another federal, state or local civil rights enforcement agency is looking into the same issue, the OCR is not obligated to investigate it.

The OCR will investigate “Whether the district discriminates against African-American students on the basis of race by punishing [them] more harshly under discipline policies on gang-related activities and symbols,” Sausser said.

It will also investigate “whether the African-American students at the (Vero Beach High School Freshman Learning Center) were subjected to a racially hostile environment by other students following a March 2016 incident involving the dissemination of flyers about the KKK and, if so, whether the district failed to respond appropriately upon receipt of notice of the hostile environment,” Sausser added.

Warrior’s complaint alleges that the hostile environment is district-wide. Although the investigation is narrowed to one incident, the OCR may conclude there is a wider discrimination problem.

“OCR applies a ‘systemic’ approach to investigations where the individual complaint allegations themselves raise systemic or class-wide issues or the investigative team determines a systemic approach is warranted through conversations with the complainant,” an OCR spokesperson said. “Additionally, OCR has long possessed the tools of compliance reviews and directed investigations for the purpose of proactively looking into and addressing broad, systemic compliance issues.”

Superintendent Mark Rendell and four of the five school board members did not respond to a request for comment.

School Board Member Laura Zorc said, “Reading through the Office of Civil Rights letter sent to the district, they state that this is a neutral ‘fact finding’ investigation. Isn’t this what we all want – facts versus personal opinion?  Under the current climate there is a great deal of mistrust with how things are being handled; so for me, a neutral third-party investigation is very welcome.”

The School District declined to provide Vero Beach 32963 with copies of the documents requested by the OCR, claiming they are exempt until a finding is made.