Originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of the WSBA Civil Rights Newsletter.
Racial, ethnic, disability, sexual orientation, and other kinds of discrimination remains a pervasive problem in Washington schools. Discrimination shows up in a variety of forms, among them harassment, disparate discipline including suspensions and expulsions, over-referral to special education, and under-inclusion in advanced-placement classes. Such discrimination contributes to lower achievement and higher dropout rates among student populations.
Since 1975, Washington state law (RCW 28A.640) has specifically protected students from sex discrimination in public schools, and it has empowered the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to monitor and enforce compliance with the law. However, there was no similar protection for students discriminated against on other bases.
HB 3026, a law passed by the 2010 legislature with the leadership and support of the ACLU-WA and a broad coalition of community organizations, provides valuable new tools for tackling discrimination. HB 3026 bars discrimination in schools on all of the bases prohibited under the Washington Law Against Discrimination: race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation including gender expression or identity, veteran or military status, the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability, or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability. The new law also grants OSPI the power to enforce and obtain compliance for civil rights violations in the same way they have historically overseen sex discrimination issues.
By creating a narrower cause of action and specifically delegating authority to OSPI, the new law creates a much clearer and more effective way of addressing civil rights violations in schools. It provides students and parents with alternatives to filing complaints, including technical assistance from OSPI and dispute resolution.
Until now, students facing discrimination on the basis of anything other than sex had recourse by filing formal complaints with the state Human Rights Commission, pursuant to the general law against discrimination, or through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Alternatively, they could file a private cause of action. Under the new law, OSPI can serve as an additional place to file complaints. Most significantly, OSPI can be a resource to help resolve allegations of discrimination in the early stages and to encourage schools to take affirmative steps to address policies and practices that may result in discrimination.
HB 3026 will help parents, students, and advocates insist that all students have equal access to the benefits and opportunities offered by our public schools. Similarly, by expanding OSPI’s authority, the state agency now intends to play a larger role in influencing schools to adopt nondiscriminatory policies and practices.
Throughout the month of May, OSPI held a series of Town Hall meetings across the state to gather input from community members to help inform the development of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) to implement HB 3026. For more information about HB 3026 or the development of the WACs, go to OSPI’s website http://www.k12.wa.us/Equity/.