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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“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.”

One day after the Education Department issued the document, University of Iowa officials announced that they would adjust their sexual assault policy to bring it up to par with federal guidelines. A week later, both Yale and Stanford lowered their standard of proof required to take action in sexual assault cases.

Cracking Down on Discrimination

The office has also seen success on a local, case-by-case basis:

* In Newberry, S.C., students in the district’s predominantly black high school had none of the Advanced Placement courses that were offered at the school attended by mostly white students. As a result of an investigation, the district agreed to make AP options available to African-American students, and increase outreach to black parents about college-prep courses.

* After examining disciplinary practices in St. James Parish, La. — where white students’ parents were notified after a first behavioral offense, while black students were routinely given detentions or expulsions for the same first-time incidents — the district changed its procedures to stop the arbitrary exercise of school discipline and trained its faculty to ensure consistent consequences for all students.

* A new charter school in Beaufort, S.C., opened in 2009 with a mostly white student population recruited from private schools. Per an agreement with OCR, the school has increased the enrollment of African-American students by more than 50 percent, recruited black parents to its board of directors and increased the number of minority staff members.

Ali points to such cases as inspiring triumphs. Yet some observers accuse OCR of bad policy. At worst: disturbing government intrusion. “If Department of Education officials intended to demonstrate a penchant for gratuitous bureaucratic overreach and disregard for individual rights, they’ve succeeded,” Atlantic columnist Wendy Kaminer wrote in an article criticizing OCR’s strong anti-bullying stance. The office warns that school bullying and harassment often violate protected civil rights.

“Safety is already a major problem in many larger urban schools, where it’s not uncommon for students to pass through metal detectors each morning. If districts are afraid to suspend students for fear of an OCR probe, a bad situation is made worse,” said a Wall Street Journal editorial. “And if AP classes will now be monitored for racial balance, schools will resort to quotas, lower standards or no longer offer the courses.”