Education Department Logged Record 18,804 Civil Rights Complaints in 2022 — But 7,339 Were Title IX Charges Lodged By a Single Person
A lone individual fueled a huge spike in discrimination complaints last year — the same person behind 6,157 similar claims to the office in 2016.
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The number of sex discrimination complaints filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights hit 9,498 in FY 2022, nearly half of all the cases logged in a record-breaking year.
But in a moment of déjà vu, 7,339 of those Title IX complaints were filed by a single person — the same one who directed 6,157 similar claims to OCR in 2016, according to the civil rights office, which declined to name the filer, citing privacy rules. That person would have had to file an average of 20 complaints a day — or nearly one an hour — in 2022.
“This individual has been filing complaints for a very long time with OCR and they are sometimes founded,” Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, told The 74.
She noted anyone can file a complaint for any perceived violation.
“It doesn’t have to be about their own experience,” Lhamon said. “There’s not a lot I can tell you about the person.”
In FY 2022, the office received 18,804 complaints, the highest number in its history and a figure that exceeds by 12% its previous record of 16,720 set in FY 2016. Lhamon has talked on multiple occasions about how the department’s heavy caseload is straining its limited resources, with 2022’s being particularly challenging.
“We investigate every complaint over which we have jurisdiction,” the assistant secretary told The 74. “So the 7,339 complaints from that single individual last year took a very substantial amount of time for my staff.”
And while Lhamon did note her office has found in the complainant’s favor in the past, she didn’t immediately know how often or if this happened in 2022.
In 2016, the more than 6,000 complaints filed by that same individual alleged discrimination in school athletic programs, according to the civil rights office. Fiscal year 2022 followed much the same pattern when the office logged 4,387 allegations of Title IX discrimination involving athletics.
One complaint could include more than one type of alleged Title IX violation, encompassing, for instance, both athletics and gender harassment.
The 2022 athletics-related claims far outpaced the 1,030 related to sexual or gender harassment or sexual violence. The figure also swamps similar claims from fiscal year 2021 when just 2,093 complaints included Title IX-related claims — with just 101 focused on athletics. More than 500 cases concerned sexual or gender harassment or sexual violence that year.
Some wonder about the type and validity of complaints filed by one person.
“When you see that almost 80% of Title IX complaints filed with the Education Department were filed by a single person — and this person filed nearly 8,000 complaints in a year — it raises questions about whether at least some were filed in bad faith,” said Elizabeth Tang, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center.
It’s possible too, Tang said, that the uptick can be a response to increased awareness about student’s rights. It might also reflect a perception that the Biden administration is more receptive to these complaints than the prior one which, under the leadership of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, looked to roll back more stringent investigations of campus sex assault and discriminatory discipline claims.
Liz King, senior program director of education at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said she hopes greater awareness is at work, but is concerned about ongoing and possibly increased civil rights violations against students.
“Any single instance of discrimination is one instance too many,” she said, adding that the civil rights office does not have the staff to meet the task it’s been given.
The surge in complaints comes at a time when the agency faces significant challenges: It shrank from nearly 1,100 full-time equivalent staff in FY 1981 to 546 last year and is dealing with a host of issues that reflect the strain placed on schools and students by the pandemic.
Biden, in his March budget address, sought a 27% increase in funding — to $178 million — for the civil rights office to meet its goals. Lhamon, whose 2021 confirmation Senate Republicans tried to block, said she’s grateful for the president’s support and hopes Congress approves the increase.
Race, color, or national origin discrimination claims made up 3,329 of all complaints received in FY 2022, according to the civil rights office’s annual report, which was released last week. That’s up from 2,399 the year prior. Disability-related complaints comprised 6,467 of the total compared to 4,870 in FY 2021.
At the same time, age discrimination claims, which made up 666 complaints in the most recent report, were down from 1,149 the prior year. The office notes the majority of these claims were also filed by a single person in both years.
The civil rights office fielded 8,934 complaints in FY 2021 and more than 9,700 the year before that, according to its annual reports.
Lhamon said a number of cases this year involved the LGBTQ and transgender community, a student population that has become the focus of hostile legislation in multiple conservative states. The complaints can cover a wide swath of issues, she said, from the prohibition of same-sex prom kings and queens to a school’s refusal to allow an LGBTQ student group to form on campus.
“It could be that students are not allowed to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity or are not allowed to play on a particular sports team,” she added.
The first resolution agreement crafted by her office on behalf of a transgender student was in 2013: It developed fewer than 20 such agreements for these children in FY 2022, Lhamon said.
Among the allegations made against schools, the civil rights office found in April 2022 that Chino Valley Unified in California violated Title IX by failing to properly respond to a complaint of sexual harassment of students on a high school athletic team.
This included the “videotaped assaults of teammates, students forcibly physically overpowering other students and sharing photos of their genitals among the team and on social media, and students placing their genitals on and near other students’ faces and bodies.”
The response from district administrators and coaches failed to end the behavior. According to the office, Chino Valley agreed to reach out to all former athletes from the offending school’s fall 2017 team and offer counseling services or reimbursement for such services.
It also was made to conduct a climate survey of the school’s athletics teams and train district leaders, school administrators and coaches about their responsibilities for responding to such claims.
In another case, this one involving the San Juan Bautista School of Medicine in Puerto Rico, OCR found the school failed, over the course of several years, to investigate a student’s report that another student sexually assaulted her.
The office concluded that the school’s procedures for resolving sexual harassment complaints did not comply with Title IX. As a result, it agreed to conduct the investigation, reimburse the complainant for some coursework, train employees and align its grievance procedures with the law.
In a third case, Tamalpais Union High School District in California was faulted by OCR for failing to investigate allegations that a transgender student was harassed about her appearance, voice, body, name and pronouns.
The office found in June the district’s inadequate response allowed for a hostile environment for the student. The district agreed to reimburse the student and her family for counseling costs and review its policies and procedures among other measures.
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