After Hearing from Algonquin Resident Unfairly Impacted by Department of Education Limiting Students' Rights, Underwood Leads New Legislation to Protect the Civil Rights of Students
WASHINGTON— Today, Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (IL-14) introduced new legislation to protect the civil rights of students. Underwood developed the legislation after being made aware of unfair practices at the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) when the family of Madison Paez, of Algonquin, contacted her office seeking assistance for an OCR complaint alleging a college discriminated against her on the basis of her disability. The Restoring Students' Right to Appeal Act (H.R. 8994) would remedy unfair practices by OCR under Secretary Betsy DeVos that impact students', like Madison, across the country.
"A fair appeals process at the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is critical to protecting the civil rights of students, workers, and their families, but under Secretary DeVos, those rights have been impacted. When I was made aware of this problem impacting people in my community, I immediately worked to ensure that OCR fulfills its responsibilities, improves fairness, and protects the rights of students," said Underwood.
"As a student with disabilities who was personally impacted by the lack of an opportunity to file a fair and timely appeal, I am grateful for Congresswoman Underwood's support and efforts. My pleas to Secretary DeVos and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights fell on deaf ears. I am hopeful that the Restoring Students' Right to Appeal Act put forth by Congresswoman Underwood will afford me, as well as other students, the opportunity to appeal and our due process rights," said Madison Paez from Algonquin.
In March 2018, OCR revised longstanding procedures to remove the option to appeal for certain complainants. OCR reversed this change in November 2018 to permit appeals for new cases but continued to deny the right to appeal for complaints filed between March and November 2018. Ultimately, OCR entered into a settlement agreement in which it agreed to allow such appeals; however, many complainants, including the constituent of Underwood's, were not made aware of this opportunity before the deadline to appeal expired.
Underwood's legislation would correct this unfair situation by restoring the right to appeal for affected complainants, and importantly, requiring OCR to notify them of this option. Additionally, to ensure fairness and transparency, the legislation would require OCR to provide a report to Congress on these activities.
The Restoring Students' Right to Appeal Act is endorsed by the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, the National Federation for the Blind, and the NAACP.
"We applaud Rep. Underwood for introducing a bill that seeks to fix a gap in the appeals process through the Office for Civil Rights. COPAA has long-advocated for a fair and timely appeals process and believes this bill would help create equity for students with disabilities and their families," said Denise Marshall, CEO, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.
"Despite mounting legal challenges, Secretary DeVos and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights continue to abdicate their duty to fully and fairly investigate all complaints. The NAACP supports the Restoring Students' Right to Appeal Act and are grateful for Congresswoman Underwood's leadership and efforts to ensure the Department of Education fulfills its responsibility to protect the civil rights of all students and employees," said Hilary O. Shelton, Director of NAACP Washington Bureau & SVP Advocacy & Policy.
"As America's civil rights organization of the blind, fighting for the rights of blind students is an integral part of who we are. As a blind person and father of two blind children, I know the importance of having a pathway to correct discriminatory practices in our schools," said Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind. "We commend Representative Underwood for introducing this bill, which will meaningfully restore the right of blind, disabled, and minority students to have their discrimination complaints heard and investigated. We look forward to working with her and her colleagues in the Congress to see that this legislation is passed expeditiously."