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Federal civil rights office reopens high school admissions case

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has reopened a discrimination case into the city’s high school admissions policies after dismissing it earlier in the month.

The reversal came after the attorney who filed the legal complaint found that the office failed to follow its own dismissal procedures and argued for the case to be given new life.

The complaint, filed in May by the Education Law Center on behalf of parents and advocacy groups, alleges that African American and Latino students are more likely to end up in high schools with large numbers of high-need students — and less likely to graduate — on account of the city’s admissions policy. It claims that the city knew the policy was discriminatory, citing internal reports that suggested changes should be made to dilute the high-need populations in these schools.

New York’s Office of Civil Rights branch dismissed the complaint on July 8, citing a lack of evidence to support the claim. But the quick dismissal skipped a step in the process by failing to first notify lawyers who filed the complaint to let them know that more information was needed, which is required under OCR’s processing manual.

Wendy Lecker, the ELC lawyer, discovered the discrepancy and raised the issue in a July 17 letter:

I never received any letter or email explaining the information necessary for OCR to proceed, nor any request for such information. Nor was I ever advised that the complaint would be dismissed in 20 days if such information was not received.

On the same day, an OCR official responded  to say that the case woud be reopened.

(Separately, a different complaint threatened by Students First NY two weeks ago has yet to be filed, a spokeswoman said today.)

The city has defended its policies amid mounting criticism that some high schools are flooded with many more high-need students than others. A spokeswoman pointed to gains made by African American and Hispanic students over the last 12 years, notably improvements in graduation and college readiness rates.

But the city has also recently begun to quietly change how students are admitted into high school on a small scale. This year, the city assigned dozens of students with special needs to highly selective schools, which Chancellor Dennis Walcott said was an effort to force top-rated schools to take in needier students.

Regardless of whether Lecker’s case is substantiated in the end, precedent suggests it could still have an impact on the city’s admissions policies.

A similar complaint was filed in 2006 against the city’s admissions policy of allowing new small high schools to exclude some students with special needs. That case, which was filed by David Bloomfield, an education professor, remained open for nearly three years and was dismissed only after the city forked over new data that suggested it was making more of an effort to enroll a higher proportion of students with disabilities in small schools than other high schools. Bloomfield said he believed the effort “prodded” the city to improve its record of high school admission.