Tuesday, Jul 26, 2016
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Education

2nd federal agency looking into Toledo Public Schools

Justice Department adds inquiry over allegations of ‘racial disparities’

Make that two federal agencies reviewing Toledo Public Schools for possible civil rights violations.

The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio have launched an inquiry into allegations of “significant racial disparities” in student discipline and concerns about how the district provides services to English Language Learner students. The investigation comes while the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights continues a compliance review of TPS for the way the district distributes resources to minority students.

The investigations by either organization do not mean TPS has violated any laws; a July 12 Justice Department letter informing the district of the investigation says only that allegations have been made.

“... The Department is conducting a preliminary inquiry into the complaints we have received, but we stress that we have reached no conclusion as to whether a violation of any federal law has occurred,” the letter states.

The scope of the two investigations are similar, and Education Department investigations are sometimes forwarded to the Justice Department in extreme cases.

Justice Department spokesman Mike Tobin said that’s not the case in Toledo.

“It’s in addition to [the DOE investigation],” Mr. Tobin said of the Justice Department’s involvement. “It’s not an escalation.”

Mr. Tobin said he believed the investigation was prompted by complaints from community members.

In late April, Justice Department officials met with members of both the Greater Toledo Urban League and the Hispanic/Latino Strategic Alliance to discuss community concerns.

Bob Vasquez, president of the Toledo Board of Education, was at the Alliance meeting and said many of the concerns raised were anecdotal. He said the Justice Department’s request for the meeting surprised him as did many of the complaints raised, which he said he had not heard before.

Mr. Vasquez said he did not think that the Toledo district discriminates in how it disciplines its students.

“It’s never been brought to my attention, that anyone has intentionally, because of race, color, or creed, done anything to a student or staff member,” he said, “because I would have been outraged.”

Following the meetings, the Justice Department sent a letter to TPS requesting, among other things, information about each time school officials called law enforcement for an incident on school grounds, details about each time the district received complaints about racial discrimination in student discipline since 2008, and a list of all students disciplined since 2009 for school infractions, listed by race, school, and other categories.

The letter also requests information about how the district provides services to English Language Learners — a program for students whose first language is not English — and how it disseminates information to parents whose first language is not English.

TPS Chief Academic Officer Jim Gault said the district will cooperate with the inquiry. He said the district has made many changes to its discipline over recent years; other district officials noted discipline referral rates have dropped significantly in the past few years.

“We addressed that,” board member Larry Sykes said about the discipline rates.

The new inquiry and the community meetings held by Justice Department officials sparked somewhat of a row between Mr. Sykes and Mr. Vasquez. Mr. Sykes claimed that Mr. Vasquez has a conflict of interest in the investigation, since he is involved with the organization in which the complaints arose and attended the meeting with Justice Department officials when district officials were advised not to attend.

Mr. Sykes also accused him of telling fellow board members that he went to the meeting representing the Hispanic community and not the school board.

“As president, you have to make a decision whether you represent the board or the Hispanics,” Mr. Sykes said. “It’s a conflict of interest.”

Mr. Vasquez said he took umbrage to the assertions, called Mr. Sykes disruptive, and said that students of all backgrounds deserve to be treated equally. He said that he views himself as filling the role of a board member, an activist, and a member of the Hispanic community.

“I guess I’m representing all of those things,” he said.

The new inquiry follows a compliance review started last year by the Education Department after complaints that predominantly black Scott High School offers few college-prep classes when compared to other schools. An Education Department spokesman said only that the inquiry continues, but TPS officials said the transformation plan has garnered positive reviews from the department.

Toledo Public Schools’ lawyer Keith Wilkowski said that the Education Department decided to look only at how the district operates in the future and not to look at historical data because of the changes, which include the move to K-8 schools and distance learning labs. Mr. Gault said the distance-learning labs and other programs will provide central-city students at schools such as Scott greater opportunities to take advanced classes.

Justice Department officials requested to speak in October with TPS board members, Superintendent Jerome Pecko, past board members, and district officials.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: nrosenkrans@theblade.com or 419-724-6086.

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