The Department of Education Handles a Student’s Complaint

This is one in a series of posts on a complaint that I filed with the Chicago regional Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) against Indiana University’s (IU’s) Indianapolis campus (IUPUI), focusing particularly on discrimination on grounds of age, sex, race, and disability. An earlier post in this series conveys the gist of that complaint. At present, this is the last post in this series. From here, the reader may be interested in returning to the introductory post in this series. That introduction links up with a separate series of posts that describe my IU experience in more detail.

People who have experience with legal processes have probably encountered a certain funneling effect, in which the complexity and range of their original situation is reduced to a smaller number of potentially successful claims. Their other grievances are either dismissed or somehow incorporated into these few main claims. This funneling effect can be beneficial, where it trims off trivial and exaggerated complaints, and focuses on more real and serious issues. It can be detrimental, however, where it means that valid issues are ignored because their pursuit would be too expensive, or because the people who could do something about them are not interested — and that was the situation with the two preceding posts. As noted there, the people at IU and elsewhere (in e.g., statehouses and accrediting agencies, not to mention professional organizations) seemed to be asleep at the wheel. OCR seemed to be the only place that would give me the time of day. So the first of the two preceding posts reviews the issues presented to OCR, and the second of those two posts presents the issues that were addressed by nobody.

As often seems to happen with putative watchdogs these days, OCR proved to be in the pocket of the people it was supposed to be overseeing — in this case, the universities. The Chicago regional office posed softball questions to people at IU, took a hardball approach to me, declined to investigate issues, and reached poorly supported conclusions. The principal value of the Chicago process, to me, was that it did result in the collection of a fair amount of enlightening documentary material about the behavior of certain people at IUPUI. IUPUI withheld important materials from DoE, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office at OCR-Chicago blanked out additional information from some of the documents that I did receive; but it was a start.

Matters then proceeded to a next step. I appealed the OCR-Chicago decision on my complaint. That appeal was filed in the national headquarters of the DoE in Washington, DC. I also filed an objection, in DC, to the excessive blanking-out indulged by the Chicago FOIA office. My appeal of the OCR-Chicago decision on my complaint led to a revised and updated statement of issues. To some extent, the first of the two preceding posts reflects that update.

My appeal of the Chicago decision was filed in DC in April 2010. OCR indicated that it could take as long as six months to get a decision. I was in contact with an OCR representative that September. He indicated that a decision might not arrive until November, and invited me to call him back if I still didn’t have a decision by that time. I did call him back. He did not return my calls. He also did not respond to repeated email.

My OCR objection met a similar fate: my multiple inquiries produced neither a response nor a decision. On a couple of occasions, I sought the assistance of DoE’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) — the watchdog of the watchdog, if you will. OIG, too, was unresponsive. I also contacted my senator’s office and asked them to put in an inquiry at DoE. When I checked back with the aide handling my inquiry, he said that he had put in several calls to the Department of Education, without success, and that there did not seem to be more he could do.

That was two years ago. Given what the representative said back in September 2010 — that the staff attorney was finishing her review of my case, and that it would then be sent to her boss — the situation seemed to be that DoE had reviewed my case and had reached a tentative decision, but wished to keep it in limbo.

The practical conclusion from this process seemed to be that DoE was able but not willing to address problems that students might encounter in higher education. That is unfortunate. Social work education could be dramatically influenced toward self-improvement if DoE were willing to reach prompt and fair decisions on complaints like mine. The same is doubtless true for many other fields; no doubt many other students have achieved comparable outcomes.

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