Office for Civil Rights

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Education that is primarily focused on enforcing civil rights laws prohibiting schools from engaging in discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, or membership in patriotic youth organizations.

Office for Civil Rights
Agency overview
HeadquartersWashington, D.C.
Agency executive
Parent departmentU.S. Department of Education
Key documents
Education in the United States
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OCR is one of the largest federal civil rights agencies in the United States, with a staff of approximately 560 attorneys, investigators, and other staff. The agency can be found in twelve regional offices and in its Washington, D.C. headquarters. The Office for Civil Rights is responsible for ensuring compliance by schools that are public entities or recipients of federal education funds with several federal civil rights laws, including:

In the case of school bullying school districts may violate these civil rights statutes and the Department of Educations's implementing regulations when peer harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability is sufficiently serious that it creates a hostile environment and such harassment is encouraged, tolerated, not adequately addressed, or ignored by school employees. Under these federal civil rights laws and regulations, students are protected from harassment by school employees, other students, and third parties.[1]


The United States Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights is the head of the OCR. The Assistant Secretary is also the primary civil rights adviser to the United States Secretary of Education.

Former Assistant Secretaries were:

Guidance to educational institutions

The OCR issues "technical guidance" instructing K-12 schools and higher education institutions on how to comply with civil rights laws under its mandates. In 2001, the OCR interpreted Title IX obligations to include the prevention and punishment of on-campus sexual harassment.[2] The Obama administration's OCR has been active in issuing such guidance,[3] including:

  • Eight Dear Colleague letters focused solely Title VI issues, covering topics such as voluntary consideration of race to avoid racial isolation in schools; avoiding immigration/citizenship status discrimination in the enrollment process; school discipline; and school obligations to ensure meaningful participation of English Learner students. Many of these letters have been controversial. For example, the school discipline letter has been criticized by Professor Gail Heriot (who sits on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and Alison Somin as both bad policy and beyond the scope of the powers of the Office for Civil Rights.[4]
  • Seven Dear Colleague letters exclusively addressing a variety of Title IX topics such as sexual violence, pregnant and parenting students, the obligations of Title IX Coordinators, volunteer youth service organizations, compliance with Title IX's regulatory requirement to accommodate students’ athletic interests and abilities, and Title IX protections for transgender students.
    • "Dear Colleague" Letter: Guidance on Addressing Sexual Harassment/Sexual Violence, issued April 4, 2011
    • Questions and Answers on Title IX and Single-Sex Elementary and Secondary Classes and Extracurricular Activities
    • Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence, issued April 29, 2014.[5]
    • Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students, issued jointly on May 13, 2016 with the Department of Justice, stating that both agencies regard Title IX's prohibition on sex discrimination to prohibit discrimination on the basis of a student's gender identity
  • Five Dear Colleague letters focused primarily on Section 504 and ADA issues. These letters dealt with addressing the need for educational technology to be accessible; effective communication for students with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities; FAQs regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 and the broadened definition of "disability;" access to extracurricular activities and sports; and disability-based bullying and harassment.

Civil Rights Data Collection

The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) is a biennial data collection from all public schools in the country conducted by the OCR. The collection began in 1968 to collect data on leading civil rights indicators related to access and barriers to educational opportunity at the early childhood through grade 12 levels. The collection was formerly known as the Elementary and Secondary School Survey. The data collected is used by the OCR, Department of Education, education researchers, policymakers and scholars from many fields.[6]

Sexual violence investigations

On May 1, 2014, the Office for Civil Rights released a list of higher education institutions with open Title IX sexual violence investigations.[7] As of 16 March 2015, nearly 100 colleges and universities were under investigation.[8]

This list constitutes the first time the federal government has announced ongoing sexual violence investigations; previously investigations were known only to members of university and college communities.[9] When announcing the schools under investigation, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon suggested that "increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue... and foster better public awareness of civil rights."[7]

The decision to release the names of universities and colleges under investigation was due to pressure from both the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and the New Campus Anti-Rape Movement.[10] Importantly, Lhamon continued, "a college or university's appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law."[7]

There are critics of the list on both sides of campus anti-rape politics. Andrea Pino, a complainant against UNC-Chapel Hill and co-founder of End Rape on Campus, told the Huffington Post that "announcing an investigation can open survivors to retaliation, and it's important that the OCR also take emphasis on providing survivors an option to opt out of having their investigation announced if it could endanger them, especially in small institutions where anonymity is less of an option."[11] Organizations like FIRE have argued that the OCR list—along with its precursor the Dear colleague letter—violates the rights to due process for both institutions and individuals.[12]

On July 2, 2014, the Office for Civil Rights added 12 colleges and universities to its list,[13] on July 10, 2014 one more was added,[14] and four more were named on July 30, 2014.[15]

Concluded investigations

In November 2014, the Office for Civil Rights announced that it had found Princeton University in violation of Title IX. The Office and Princeton reached an agreement on a package of procedural reforms to bring it into compliance including mandatory training, a public awareness and bystander intervention campaign, reexamination of three years of past sexual violence complaints, improved coordination with law enforcement, and expanded documentation of sexual violence on campus.[16]


  1. Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (October 26, 2010). "Letter to a Colleague" (PDF). Letter to a Colleague. United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. Retrieved November 9, 2011. The statutes that [The Office for Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education] enforces include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504); and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II). Section 504 and Title II prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. School districts may violate these civil rights statutes and the Department's implementing regulations, 34 C.F.R. parts 100, 104, and 106, when peer harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability is sufficiently serious that it creates a hostile environment and such harassment is encouraged, tolerated, not adequately addressed, or ignored by school employees.
  2. Carter, Jimmy (March 25, 2014). A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power. Simon and Schuster. p. 44. ISBN 978-1-4767-7397-1.
  3. Borkowski, John W.; Samples, Elizabeth S.; Luningham, Katie Jo (2016). "US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights Guidance: An Update" (PDF). Retrieved June 13, 2016. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. Gail Heriot & Alison Somin, The Department of Education's Obama-Era Initiative on Racial Disparities in School Discipline: Wrong for Students and Teachers,Wrong on the Law, Texas Journal of Law & Politics (2018)
  5. Office of Civil Rights (April 4, 2011), Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence (PDF)
  6. "Key Changes Would Alter The Government's Massive Survey On Schools And Civil Rights". Retrieved December 11, 2019.
  7. "U.S. Department of Education Releases List of Higher Education Institutions with Open Title IX Sexual Violence Investigations". U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved August 6, 2014.
  8. Carroll, James (March 16, 2015). "By making war, US unleashed mass rape". The Boston Globe. Retrieved March 16, 2015.
  9. Steinhauer, Jennifer; Joachim, David (May 1, 2014). "55 Colleges Named in Federal Inquiry Into Handling of Sexual Assault Cases". The New York Times. Retrieved August 6, 2014.
  10. Newman, Jonah; Sander, Libby. "Promise Unfulfilled?". Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved August 9, 2014.
  11. Kingkade, Tyler (July 1, 2014). "55 Colleges Face Sexual Assault Investigations". Huffington Post. Retrieved October 10, 2014.
  12. Smith, Robert (August 30, 2014). "On Sexual Harassment and Title IX". RealClearPolitics. Retrieved October 10, 2014.
  13. "US Ed Dept adds 12 Schools to Title IX List". Associated Press. July 2, 2014. Archived from the original on September 3, 2014. Retrieved August 6, 2014.
  14. Lamb, Katherine (July 23, 2014). "Education Dept. opens Title IX investigation of Brown". The Brown Daily Herald. Retrieved August 6, 2014.
  15. "30 July 2014 List" (PDF). Retrieved August 9, 2014.
  16. "Princeton University Found in Violation of Title IX, Reaches Agreement with U.S. Education Department to Address, Prevent Sexual Assault and Harassment of Students". US Department of Education. November 5, 2014. Retrieved June 13, 2016.
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