UT included in discrimination database released by US Department of Education

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UT has at least five complaints of sex discrimination or disability discrimination pending investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, according to online data the department released last month.

The database shows only a snapshot of cases under investigation, according to their website. A new snapshot of data will be uploaded on the first Wednesday of every month.

Within the database, which includes investigations at all schools from elementary to higher education, UT-Austin is mentioned five times total, as of Wednesday. The complaints listed took place in 2014 and 2017.

According to the office’s website, being on the list does not mean an institution has violated discrimination law. It means a complaint filed with the office was deemed appropriate for investigation.

Norma Cantu, an education and law professor who served as assistant Secretary of Education for the Office for Civil Rights in the 1990s, said a complaint filed with the office usually means an institution that receives federal funding is being accused of discrimination, and is not to be confused with a lawsuit, which is usually filed in federal or state court. 

“A civil right complaint is a person giving information to the federal government, alerting them that federal funds may be received by an institution that is then turning around and discriminating,” Cantu said. “The policy behind having the office receive complaints is that Congress doesn’t want recipients of federal funding to then turn around and discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, disability or age.”

In order to file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, an individual is not required to go through the complaint process with their respective institution, Cantu said. An individual is able to file a complaint directly to the Office for Civil Rights even if they have filed a complaint with their school or university. 

Cantu said it is rare that a university that receives federal funding, such as UT, would be stripped of the entitlement to receive federal funding based on a civil complaint. 

Law professor Joseph Fishkin said although a lawsuit is not automatically pursued once a complaint is filed, students still have the option to file for one. 

“This doesn’t mean that someone has necessarily sued (an institution),” Fishkin said. “There sometimes can be a complaint like this and then subsequently, if the person making the complaint doesn’t feel that they got anywhere with the complaint, sometimes they can also bring on a lawsuit.” 

When it comes to handling lawsuits, UT is serious about addressing allegations, said Shilpa Bakre, communications strategist for the Title IX office. 

“When the University is a named defendant in any lawsuit, the University takes those allegations seriously and works with different individuals and offices in evaluating the allegations made in the lawsuit and responding appropriately,” Bakre said.

According to their annual report, 16,720 complaints were filed with the Office of Civil Rights in 2016. Cantu said it is good that the Office for Civil Rights is making this information public.   

“I think it’s good for the agency to be transparent and to share information about where they stand,” Cantu said. “What you do have is an agency trying to describe its workload and the major types of issues that (the) agency is handling.”