A Civil Rights Activist Filed Thousands of Disability Complaints. Now the Education Department Is Trying to Shut Her Down

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Marcie Lipsitt used to enjoy checking the mail. But these days, not so much.

Over the course of several years, the disability rights activist has filed thousands of federal civil rights complaints against school districts and universities across the country — all part of a personal crusade to make websites accessible for people with disabilities.

Lipsitt said state education departments, prestigious universities, and large school districts — even specialty schools geared toward students who are blind or deaf — often provide sprawling websites that fail to comply with federal accessibility laws. Filing civil rights complaints en masse, she found, was an efficient tool to improve web access for people with disabilities, including those who are blind or deaf or have fine motor impairments.

As a result of her complaints, her mailbox was routinely flooded with letters from the Education Department, and often, she was pleased with what she found inside.

Each month, the 58-year-old said, the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) would open as many as 150 new investigations based on her complaints. Simultaneously, she received as many as 100 letters a month notifying her that an institution had signed a resolution agreement to fix the problem.

But in 2018, things are looking bleak for Marcie Lipsitt.

In January and February, she said, she witnessed a dramatic drop in new investigations and resolution agreements. By mid-March, her luck started moving in the opposite direction. The OCR began closing pending civil rights investigations brought by mass filers that it said place an “unreasonable burden” on agency resources. She dubbed it the “Marcie Lipsitt Rule.”

The number of complaints submitted to the OCR has surged in recent years, due in large part to grievances brought by a handful of people. Last year, three people submitted 23 percent of the complaints, Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill told The 74. A year earlier, they accounted for 41 percent.

In an email, Hill said the new procedures follow months of collaboration among OCR’s “career investigations and career managers,” and it reflects their “commitment to robustly investigating and correcting civil rights issues.”

A formidable record

Lipsitt isn’t an attorney. A professional advocate for disabled students and their families, Lipsitt followed her intuition and took on web accessibility as a voluntary side project. Often, she’s found, education institutions offer websites that run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibit disability-based discrimination. Some have websites without closed captioning on videos, for example, or web pages that cannot be navigated without a mouse.

Her track record is formidable. Since 2016, Lipsitt has filed roughly 2,400 web accessibility complaints, about 1,000 of which have resulted in signed resolution agreements between the institutions and the Education Department’s civil rights division. The institutions agreeing to make changes include 26 state education departments, several of America’s largest school districts, and, ironically, specialized schools for children with visual and auditory impairments.

Marcie Lipsitt

Lipsitt hasn’t received universal praise for her work. Staring down federal investigations, some school officials have accused her of filing frivolous and expensive complaints.

Since OCR updated its rules on March 5, more than 550 pending civil rights investigations that stemmed from Lipsitt’s complaints have been dismissed, she said, and about 100 new complaints have been dismissed.

Under the new rules, the Education Department dismissed a civil rights investigation against the Western Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school located at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport near Grand Rapids. That school was founded in 2010 by Dick DeVos, the husband of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Hill, the department spokeswoman, did not respond to questions about the episode.

The Education Department, Lipsitt argues, is turning its back on the civil rights of children with disabilities.

“I believe in civil rights,” she said. “I believe they are the fabric of America, and I have said since Trump was elected that the one thing his administration couldn’t take away from me and others was the right to file a civil rights complaint.”

In other words, she has no plan to roll over.

“I’m working harder than ever,” she said. “Now I’ve got a new job. I’ve got to find a way to rescind these revisions. It’s very, very, very depressing.”

‘The monster that I became’

Lipsitt’s activism stems from her childhood in Michigan, when she stood up for her younger sister, who struggled with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. In 1989, her son was born with learning disabilities, and she became his advocate. That advocacy soon became a full-time job, and for more than two decades, she’s helped other families navigate the often-byzantine special education bureaucracy. She helps families negotiate services with school officials, offers advice during disagreements, and, if necessary, helps families file civil rights complaints.

In 2014, Michigan education department officials proposed changes to special education procedures and created a website to address public comments. That website, it turned out, wasn’t accessible for people with disabilities. So she filed a complaint. That complaint led to a voluntary resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education in 2015.

A few months after Lipsitt filed the Michigan complaint, an attorney with the federal Office for Civil Rights introduced her to several automated tools the agency uses to investigate website compliance.

“He turned me into the monster that I became,” she quipped.

She checked all state education departments across the country, and agency websites in all but two states — Virginia and Maryland — had accessibility issues, she said. Up next were the 200 largest school districts across the country. By the end, she’d filed complaints — each of which takes about 30 minutes to complete — against thousands of universities, school districts, and libraries.

The big reversal

Under DeVos, the Education Department’s civil rights division has become a focal point for fierce political conflict. Student complaints ballooned under the Obama administration, and in defending a proposed OCR budget cut earlier this year, DeVos said she was trying to make the civil rights division more efficient. Civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers, however, have accused the Trump Administration of undermining students’ civil rights by narrowing the focus of investigations.

In mid-January, the civil rights office was investigating more than 800 cases involving accessibility issues for students with disabilities at school districts and universities, with cases dating as far back as 2013, according to a monthly spreadsheet displayed on the department’s website. By the end of March, that tally dropped to just over 200, according to the most recent public data.

The update makes several changes: It eliminates the appeals process for complainants who disagree with investigators’ findings, for example, and eliminates all mentions of “systemic” investigations intended to find widespread problems.

In letters to Lipsitt, federal investigators cited a provision that says cases will be dismissed if they demonstrate “a pattern of complaints” filed by an individual or a group against multiple recipients. The department will also dismiss a complaint that is “filed for the first time against multiple recipients that, viewed as a whole, places an unreasonable burden” on OCR resources.

In the coming months, Hill said, the Education Department plans to issue updated technical assistance materials on web accessibility, a technique she said will help the agency solve the type of cases Lipsitt has dealt with “more quickly and efficiently.”

Parents and advocates often look to civil rights complaints as a mechanism for relief, since lawsuits are time-consuming and expensive. But Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, said the changes could prompt students and parents to file more disability lawsuits. Although she couldn’t comment on the merits of Lipsitt’s complaints, she said department resources shouldn’t play a role in whether to open an investigation.

“Their obligation is to resolve discrimination and violations of the law where they know they exist, and not to just dismiss outright because of what they claim to be an administrative burden,” she said.

The open-ended language, Lipsitt argues, could be used to terminate a range of pending civil rights investigations, not just those related to disability. Additionally, she argued that federal disability laws don’t permit the government to dismiss “meritorious complaints” because they’re a financial burden.

Through her work, she’s inspired others to follow suit, including Joey Poirier, a 35-year-old special education advocate from Florida who’s filed dozens of civil rights complaints against school districts in his home state. The Education Department sent letters in March notifying him that 10 investigations stemming from his complaints had been closed.

“These weren’t fraudulent, bogus complaints — these were all complaints that were legitimate,” Poirier said. “It’s incredible what they did. I guess we have selective civil rights in the United States now. “

With the investigations being closed, Lipsitt said she’s met with attorneys about potential legal action against the Department. Lipsitt said she’s proud of moving the needle forward on computer access for people with disabilities.

“When I’m dead and gone,” she said, “I will have actually done something that mattered.”

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