Feds say staff shortage prevents EPISD civil rights investigation - El Paso Times
The Department of Education now says it will not pursue potential civil rights violations related to cheating at El Paso Independent School District because of a lack of resources.
In the last year, the department's Office of Civil Rights has received nearly 10,000 complaints while staffing levels are at their lowest level since the Department of Education was created more than 20 years ago, spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said.
"Given that OCR has no evidence indicating students in El Paso continue to be denied an education based on their national origin, conducting an additional investigation would not be the most prudent use of our limited resources and staff," she told the El Paso Times. "OCR remains deeply committed to investigating complaints and launching proactive investigations when possible to ensure equitable treatment of students and access to educational opportunities that prepare them for success in college and the workforce."
Nolt's explanation differs from that given last week by two assistant secretaries of education in a letter to U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso. They wrote to explain that the department wouldn't follow up on a recommendation by its Office of Inspector General to investigate civil rights violations at EPISD.
In the letter, the officials told O'Rourke that department policy prohibited investigations when the alleged civil rights violation occurred more than 180 days earlier. However, a spokeswoman for the agency's inspector general, which recommended a civil rights investigation in its June 2013 audit report on EPISD, told the El Paso Times that the agency has broad discretion in civil rights cases.
The inspector general audit, which took more than two years to complete, confirmed findings of cheating by previous El Paso Times and federal investigations and recommended the department's Office of Civil Rights look into whether Mexican immigrant students' civil rights were violated when they were denied an education by the cheating scheme.
Various investigations have determined that former Superintendent Lorenzo García and other district officials attempted to game the federal accountability system by trying to prevent some students, primarily Mexican immigrants, from taking the 10th-grade standardized tests used for accountability purposes. Some students were improperly retained in ninth grade; others were inexplicably promoted to 11th or 12th grade; others were forced to leave school.
O'Rourke said the explanation for federal inaction has continued to change as his office and the media have sought answers.
"The bottom line, I think, that one can take away from this is that the Department of Education does not want to pursue this," he said. "There's always going to be competition for limited resources from the federal government. El Paso has, I think, one of the strongest cases to make in terms of how our community was hurt by EPISD. The federal government has a unique role to make that right."
Former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, who was among the first to accuse García and other EPISD officials of wrongdoing, said the inconsistency at the federal agency shows a disregard for the border area.
"In one office, USDOE reports thousands have been 'disappeared.' In the other, OCR says 'you are too late" for any justice. Meanwhile, OCR's and USDOE's systemic failures hurt thousands of Hispanic and special ed students as García's crime spreads across Texas," he said in an email. "Had this happened in Chicago, I have no doubt OCR would spring into action."
EPISD for the past year has sought to locate students affected by the cheating -- another recommendation of the federal audit report -- through the Alpha Initiative, the district's dropout recovery program.
District Board of Managers President Dee Margo said those efforts have gone as well as could be expected.
"To the extent that we can, the data I've seen and everything says to me that we've done everything we could at this juncture," he said. "The problem is those kids are 18 and they've moved on."
At a town hall event at Coronado High School this week, he expressed frustration that the board was "out of the loop" in the congressman's correspondence with the Department of Education.
O'Rourke said he has copied the board through Margo on those exchanges. He added the cheating scandal showed more federal oversight, not less, was necessary.
And while federal and state criminal investigations into the cheating scheme are ongoing -- García is still the only district employee to receive jail time or be prosecuted -- investigation of those violations would bring additional accountability and expose issues not touched by a criminal inquiry, O'Rourke said.
"There are questions left unanswered in the role different people had in the scandal at EPISD and, potentially, their role in other school districts in the region," he said.