Educational Opportunities Section

Overview

Fifty years ago, in its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that the intentional segregation of students on the basis of race in public schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Subsequent federal legislation and court decisions also mandate that school officials not discriminate against students on the basis of sex, national origin, language barrier, religion, or disabilities. The Educational Opportunities Section enforces these statutes and court decisions in a diverse array of cases involving elementary and secondary schools and institutions of higher education.

Specifically, the Section enforces Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA), and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as other statutes such as Title VI and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act upon referral from other governmental agencies. The Section may intervene in private suits alleging violations of education-related anti-discrimination statutes and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Section also represents the Department of Education in lawsuits.

As a result of its compliance activities, the Section regularly achieves a number of consent decrees and favorable decisions that enhance desegregation in affected school districts. In United States v. Yonkers Board of Education, the parties reached a settlement agreement that dismissed the case but retained federal court jurisdiction to enforce the agreement's terms. The key terms require the State of New York to provide $300 million between 2001 and 2006 to the Yonkers School District to implement over forty remedial educational programs. Most recently, the Section reached a settlement agreement in Davis and United States v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, a case filed in 1956 by Thurgood Marshall and other attorneys, whereby the school district agreed to create new magnet schools, provide enhanced resources to inner city schools with predominantly black student enrollments and increase enrollments in desegregated schools over the next four years.

The Section also continues to work on behalf of English Language Learner students (ELLs). In June 2003, the Section signed a three-year settlement agreement with the Plainfield, New Jersey School District regarding its obligation to provide appropriate instruction and services to ELLs under the EEOA. The agreement includes requirements regarding: identifying and serving ELLs; integrating ELLs with native speakers of English; making libraries and media centers accessible to ELLs; and providing academic support to ELLs enrolled in general education classes. In October 2003, the Section signed a three-year settlement agreement with the Bound Brook, New Jersey School District regarding its ELL-related obligations under the EEOA. The agreement requires the district to provide, among other things: timely assessment of all students with non-English speaking backgrounds; quality curricula and instruction for ELLs; adequate teacher training; and careful monitoring and reporting on the academic progress of ELLs who are currently enrolled in the program and those who have exited from the program.

The Section has undertaken a systematic review of its desegregation case docket to ensure that districts have complied or are working toward complying with court orders and federal law. This review includes evaluating those facets of school district operations that the Supreme Court has dubbed the six "Green factors" – student assignment, faculty, staff, facilities, transportation, and extracurricular activities – as well as ensuring that minority students have fair access to gifted and advanced education, are not singled out for discipline, and are not incorrectly referred to special education. For instance, the Section worked with 28 school districts in Alabama to determine whether they have attained unitary status and, if not, what must be done to achieve it. The school districts submitted comprehensive data concerning all facets of their operations. Courts have declared most districts partially unitary and have returned those facets to local district control. With respect to the remaining facets, the school districts have entered into settlements establishing steps they will take to continue to eliminate the vestiges of the prior segregated system. Indeed, some districts have completed those steps, and courts have declared several of the districts fully unitary and dismissed their cases. In addition, to address the misplacement of minority students in mentally retarded (MR) and learning disabled (SLD) programs, the Section negotiated with the State of Alabama a comprehensive agreement addressing those issues and requiring state oversight of the local districts.

The Section also has been active in the area of higher education desegregation. In February 2002, the court approved the settlement of Ayers and United States v. Fordice, the longstanding Mississippi higher education desegregation case. The United States and private plaintiffs negotiated a settlement dismissing the case and requiring Mississippi to provide $503 million over a seventeen-year period to improve the State's historically black colleges while increasing access for minority students to the State's historically white colleges. The United States reached a similar settlement in Geier and United States v. Sundquist, which is expected to further desegregate Tennessee's system of public higher education. The settlement required the State to spend approximately $75 million over a five-year period to fund various projects, including establishing a College of Public Service and Urban Affairs, creating a new doctoral program or acquiring a private law school, and increasing efforts to recruit African-American undergraduate students.

The Section is also active in ensuring that school districts do not discriminate on the basis of religion. In Westfield High School L.I.F.E. Club v. Westfield Public Schools, the Section filed an amicus brief arguing that a school district could not constitutionally prohibit students from distributing religious pamphlets in schools when it permitted them to distribute secular pamphlets. In Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board, the Section filed an amicus brief arguing that a school district, having made its facilities available to community groups for meetings, could not exclude religious-based groups from having the same access. In both cases, the courts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs who sought to engage in protected religious speech.

As part of our efforts in the athletic context, the Section participated in cases brought by female high school students against the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) and the South Dakota High School Activities Association (SDHSAA) and helped obtain favorable resolutions. In MHSAA, following an eight-day trial, the court held that MHSAA's disadvantageous scheduling of female sports violated Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause. The court ordered MHSAA to submit a compliance plan to remedy the discrimination. In SDHSAA, the Section intervened and obtained a favorable consent decree.

The Section's commitment to combat discriminatory harassment has led it to participate in student-on-student and student-on-teacher harassment cases. For example, in Madison and United States v. Sullivan County Board of Education, the Section intervened in a student-on-student racial harassment case, alleging that the Board had been deliberately indifferent to the racial harassment of two students. Shortly before trial, the Section negotiated a settlement with the school district and private plaintiffs under which the school district would develop a plan for preventing student harassment; train teachers, staff and students on the plan; and timely investigate and report on harassment incidents.

Finally, the Section is always interested in receiving complaints and information from students, parents, interested individuals and organizations regarding possible unlawful discrimination in public educational institutions, as well as information about ongoing lawsuits involving alleged discrimination in educational institutions, to determine whether Section participation is warranted. For more information, click here.

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Updated August 6, 2015

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