Department of Education to O'Rourke: No civil rights investigation into El Paso schools


›› Department of Education response to O’Rourke

After months of back-and-forth with U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the U.S. Department of Education made clear in a letter this month it won’t budge on his request for an investigation of civil rights violations tied to cheating at El Paso schools.

The investigation was actually recommended by the department’s Office of Inspector General in a June audit of El Paso Independent School District. But the Department of Education indicated months later that no such investigation would be forthcoming because the alleged violations occurred more than six months in the past.


Andrew Kreighbaum

O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said in an interview he may have reached a dead-end in a push for further federal reviews of the cheating at EPISD and would look to find local solutions.

“We’ve communicated with them several times, we’ve corresponded with them, pressed this issue and they just do not — they’re just not interested in pursuing an office of civil rights investigation in El Paso,” he said. “So, ultimately, I’ve got to accept that and work with the district and the resources that we do have to prevent this from happening again.”

The federal audit found evidence of efforts to manipulate accountability measures at Bowie High School and Coronado High School. The report confirmed findings of previous investigations by independent auditors and the Times that EPISD administrators under former Superintendent Lorenzo García gamed federal accountability standards at multiple campuses by improperly holding back or pushing out struggling students to prevent them from taking the 10th grade TAKS test.

Since the audit report’s release, O’Rourke has sought details from federal officials on their efforts to comply with the report’s recommendations — both to investigate the cheating at EPISD and prevent it from happening again.

The OIG report called for changes to state and local policies, including those affecting foreign-transfer students and grade reclassification. The report also called for the investigation of civil rights violations.

In a letter in December, the department said it would not follow up on the call for such a review because more than six months had passed since potential violations occurred — that despite the nature of the violations and comments from the department’s OIG that it had broad discretion on when to launch investigations.

When the department was questioned about the decision by the Times, a spokeswoman later said limited staff resources had also played a role in the decision.

In a letter to O’Rourke this month, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon and Assistant Secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Delisle reiterated those reasons for passing on an investigation.

“The allegations do not meet any of the criteria used by OCR to grant a waiver of its requirements for filing timely complaints, which include such reasons as that the complainant was unable to file with OCR in a timely manner because of incapacitating illness or had filed with another agency or in court and then filed with OCR in a timely manner,” they wrote it a letter to O’Rourke dated Feb. 6.

Lahmon and Delisle further wrote that because there was no indication of ongoing discrimination, providing remediation to students affected would be impractical and the division is operating with historically low staffing levels while with a historically high volume of complaints, there would be no investigation.

While noting the high volume of high complaints — 1,189 in Fiscal Year 2013 and 211 in the first four months of Fiscal Year 2014 — with low staffing levels, the officials did not include any data indicating what a typical number of complaints would be in a given year.

They insisted that the department was planning, however, to seek documentation from EPISD and the Texas Education Agency that they were implementing a series of corrective actions outlined in a January response to the federal audit report. Both agencies have a 60-day deadline to provide an update of their progress implementing those corrective actions, including new policies and internal controls to ensure the integrity of accountability data at the district level and annual training for school district staff.

O’Rourke called the March 17 deadline for progress reports from EPISD and TEA a “milestone” to show what they’ve done to implement new policies.

But he said he had confidence in the appointed board of managers at the school district and local leaders have a record of finding solutions when new federal resources are not forthcoming, such as efforts to reduce wait times at international bridges.

“This is a community that has stepped up to the grave challenge and is doing everything it can to meet that challenge,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we give up at the federal level, it just means that we’re going to have to be more self-reliant going forward to insure we never see something like that again and to help those who were affected.”

Andrew Kreighbaum may be reached at 546-6127.

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