Citing Time Limit, US Dept of Ed Won’t Investigate El Paso Cheating

The U.S. Department of Education will not investigate potential civil rights violations from cheating at El Paso Independent School District in Texas. Two top department officials informed U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke that the department cannot take any action because violations occurred prior to the last six months.

O’Rourke had requested an update on the federal agency’s actions since an audit released this summer found widespread cheating between 2007 and 2010 in EPISD. Two assistant secretaries of education said a letter to O’Rourke the Education Department regulations bar such investigations if the allegations are more than 180 days old. Another Education Department official, however, said that the department can use its broader discretion to investigate the matter. O’Rourke is not satisfied with these conflicting responses and is seeking additional answers, writes Andrew Kreighbaum of El Paso Times.

In his request, O’Rourke asked whether the agency was following up on an audit recommendation that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights investigate whether the cheating scheme violated the civil rights of EPISD students.

The audit found that the cheating scheme targeted students in EPISD’s Priority Schools Division — particularly Mexican immigrant students in high schools. The audit found that some students were improperly retained in ninth-grade to keep them from taking the 10th-grade standardized test used for federal accountability measures. Others were inexplicably vaulted from ninth to 11th grade for the same purpose, while others were simply pushed out of school.

Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary of the Office for Civil Rights, wrote in a letter that Department of Education regulations prevent an investigation of civil rights violations in the EPISD cheating scheme because the allegations are too old.

“(The Office for Civil Rights’) regulations require that complaints be filed within 180 days of the alleged act of discrimination — the underlying incidents at issue occurred in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years, with ramifications for graduation rates through the 2011-12 school year,” two assistant secretaries said.

But Catherine Grant, the spokeswoman for the agency’s Office of the Inspector General, does not agree with two assistant secretaries. Grant said the Department regulations allow broad discretion in ordering civil rights investigations beyond the 180-day window.

The inspector general began an audit in December 2010 and finalized it in June 2013. The audit recommended a follow-up investigation by the civil rights office.

O’Rourke has been asking the Education Department for months for explanations about actions it’s taking toward EPISD and other El Paso County school districts where cheating was alleged. He said the speed of the department’s response so far has been “incredibly frustrating.”

“This doesn’t seem to be a priority for them,” he said. “I’m just expecting more out of the Department of Education. I want to be constructive. I don’t want to just rail against them, I want to find a way that we can work to get this done.”

After learning about the department’s broad discretion on civil rights investigation, O’Rourke sent another letter to the two assistant secretaries.