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Originally published Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 9:15 PM

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Civil-rights reviews focus on several school districts, state

Five civil-rights reviews are under way in Washington school districts — two in Seattle Public Schools, one in the Lake Washington School District, one in Yakima and one statewide probe related to Title IX.

Seattle Times education reporter

The federal reviews

Seattle: discipline disparities by race, services for students learning English

Lake Washington: services for students learning English

Yakima: anti-harassment policies and practices

State education department: gender issues in athletics

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Along with investigating Seattle Public Schools’ record on student discipline, the U.S. Department of Education has four other civil-rights reviews under way in Washington schools.

Seattle is the focus of two of the probes — the investigation into whether black students are disciplined more frequently and more harshly than white students, which came to light two weeks ago, plus a second review that focuses on students learning English.

Federal officials also say they are looking at programs for English-language learners in the Lake Washington School District and at anti-harassment policies and practices in the Yakima School District, plus what appears to be a statewide review related to gender issues in athletics.

All five reviews were initiated by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, as part of a four-year-old push by the Obama administration to more aggressively enforce civil-rights laws covering public schools.

The education department does not discuss why it chooses specific school districts to investigate, but a spokesman said that in general, it initiates reviews on issues that “are particularly acute or national in scope.”

In Yakima and Lake Washington, school officials said they got the impression that they were randomly chosen for what amounted to a routine audit.

They said their districts submitted information requested by the Office of Civil Rights more than a year ago, and have not yet heard what federal officials concluded, or even whether the reviews are completed.

In Seattle, a spokeswoman said district officials have no sense of why their district is under review.

While black and other minority students have long been disciplined at a higher rate than whites and Asians in Seattle schools, it’s not clear whether the problem is worse here than in many other school districts across the state and nation.

In nearly every state

From 2009 through the end of last year, the civil-rights office has launched about 100 civil-rights investigations involving at least one school district in nearly every state.

Those investigations, known as compliance reviews, are just part of the office’s caseload, most of which stems from complaints filed by parents or community members.

The department’s proactive efforts have won praise from those who say there was a drought of education civil-rights cases under the previous administration.

“Finally, the Department of Education is back in the business of protecting the civil rights of children who attend public schools,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil-rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

Browne Dianis defended the education department’s decision to press school districts to change policies and practices that have discriminatory outcomes, regardless of whether officials intended to discriminate.

But the department also has been criticized by others who feel it is overreaching.

Civil-rights laws are important and should be enforced, said Roger Clegg, who worked as a top civil-rights lawyer at the Justice Department under Presidents Bush and Reagan. But Clegg said that the Obama administration’s focus on data, especially in discipline, may cause school districts to stop punishing students who deserve it in order to get their numbers right.

The education department, he said, “risks finding school districts in violation of the law when they have not treated anybody differently on the basis of race.”

Apparently all ongoing

In Washington state, the investigation into racial disparities in discipline in Seattle Public Schools, launched in mid-2012, is the most recent of the five proactive reviews under way.

It doesn’t appear that any of the five have yet concluded.

Jim Bradshaw, the education department spokesman, said Monday and again on Tuesday that he could not get an answer to that and several other questions until later this week.

Few details were available about each review, although education department officials have said they seek to ensure students aren’t disciplined more harshly based on their race, and that limited proficiency in English is not an obstacle to learning.

In Seattle, the review of services for students learning English appears to have started in 2009.

A spokeswoman said that information she received from the education department also indicated that federal officials are looking at whether the district discriminated against some students when it closed several schools a number of years ago. The department seemed to have concerns about minority students and those learning English.

In the Lake Washington School District, spokeswoman Kathryn Reith said school officials received a letter in September 2010 saying their district had been selected for one of several compliance reviews involving English-language services.

The district’s understanding, she said, was that it was chosen because its students speak so many languages — anywhere from 70 to 90, depending on the year. About 5.5 percent of students don’t speak English as their first language, she said.

The civil-rights office asked the district for a lot of information, such as what services it offers students learning English, how it identifies those who need services, and how it communicates with their parents.

Federal officials also have interviewed district administrators and teachers, she said.

The Yakima School District received its letter in February 2011, which asked for 21 different types of data, much of it having to do with policies and practices about discrimination and harassment on the basis or race, color, national origin, gender or disability, said Assistant Superintendent Jack Irion.

Irion said he and other staff members ended up sending boxes of materials to federal officials — everything from student handbooks to two-and-a-half years worth of data on disciplinary incidents.

The person with information about the statewide athletics review was not available, according to a spokesman for the state’s education department.

Federal education officials have been quoted as saying that they prefer to reach voluntary agreements on changes, and that has happened in at least a handful of school districts in other states, including Oakland, Boston and Los Angeles.

In the Oakland case, which involved discipline, Russlyn Ali, then assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a news release that the agreement to overhaul the discipline system was unprecedented and a model she hoped to see repeated across the country.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @LShawST

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