Is This Obama Education Official Going Too Far?

Russlynn Ali, the Education Department's top civil rights official, is sailing past her critics to ensure equal access for black students.

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President Barack Obama has frequently called education the most important civil rights issue of our generation. "There's a reason the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools," he said at the 2009 NAACP convention, citing Brown v. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine. "It's because there is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child's God-given potential."

Though it doesn't make headlines the way it did in the 1950s, that story is still being composed -- and a black woman is wielding the pen. Russlynn Ali, the youthful, curly-haired assistant secretary of the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, oversees the enforcement of all anti-discrimination laws related to education. With broad jurisdiction that includes admissions and recruitment, student discipline, as well as classroom assignment and grading, she investigates schools and districts nationwide to ensure equitable conduct across race, gender, national origin and disability.

It's the same perch once occupied in 1982 by conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But over the past two years Ali, 40, has elevated the office's work to new heights.

While previous OCR leaders have relied on filed complaints to launch probes, Ali has proactively opened 60 investigations based on the agency's own research. That's in addition to nearly 7,000 complaints recorded last year, the most in Education Department history. Of the thousands of cases handled in the first year under the Obama administration, resolution agreements increased by 11 percent. Voluntary resolutions, in which schools made sufficient changes without additional prodding, jumped 32 percent.

"My sense of urgency could not be greater," Ali says in her raspy voice, punctuating each word with insistent hand motions over her office's mahogany conference table. "We're talking about questions of fundamental fairness -- issues that have always played out in our schools. Our kids can't succeed if we don't give them the tools they need. No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, how could we not?"

College-Climate Change

Ali's latest initiative drew national attention earlier this month: new federal guidance (pdf) to help schools prevent and respond to sexual violence. Vice President Joe Biden got much of the credit, thanks to a compelling speech at the University of New Hampshire condemning rape ("No means no if you're drunk or you're sober. No means no if you're in a bed in a dorm room or on the street"), as well as his pivotal role in drafting the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.

But it was Ali's office, triggered by numerous probes around the country -- including an ongoing investigation of a Washington, D.C., high school where a student alleged that she'd been raped, and another at Notre Dame University, where a freshman committed suicide last fall after reporting her campus assault -- that set off the effort.

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"It had always been the case, but the federal government had never before said, 'Sexual violence can be a civil rights violation,' " Ali said of the guidance, which directs schools to effectively prevent and respond to incidents of sexual assault, and stresses their responsibility to address hostile environments. "We've had hundreds of institutions across the country that just didn't know what to do. It's been stunning to see how quickly they have responded."