An official website of the United States government

Catherine Lhamon: Opening Statement, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
August 13, 2014

Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Catherine E. Lhamon

Assistant Secretary, Office for Civil Rights
United States Department of Education

Mr. Chairperson, Members of the Committee, and representatives of civil society:  I am Catherine Lhamon and I serve as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education. The mission of the Office for Civil Rights is to ensure that our nation’s students receive equal educational opportunities regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability, and so my remarks today will focus on equal educational opportunity for our nation’s students.
On behalf of my colleagues from across the United States government, we are honored to be here to share our work to eliminate racial discrimination and uphold our obligations under the Convention.

My colleagues and I strive to eradicate all forms of racial discrimination in our society, fulfilling President Obama’s promise to deliver “the promise of opportunity, defend our fellow Americans’ sacred right to vote, seek equality in our schools and workplaces, and fight injustice wherever it exists.”

Racial equity is an important part of the Department of Education’s mission. Today’s discrimination impacts students of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, including black students, Latino students, Native American and Alaska Native students, and Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students. Racial discrimination can also intersect with other forms of invidious discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of disability, sex, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity, as well distinctions drawn on the status as English learner or immigration.

The Department vigorously enforces federal civil rights laws in all aspects of the educational system – from preschool to postsecondary education and in career, technical, and adult education.
To take one example, in 2011, my office reached a resolution with the Los Angeles Unified School District in California, the 2nd largest public school district in the United States (serving more than 640,000 students). The district had before then troubling racial disparities in its school discipline practices that resulted in lost learning time for many students of color. My office partnered with the district to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to eliminate the racially disproportionate discipline of black students. Since then, the suspension rate in that school district fell to 1.5% and the suspension rate for black students has been reduced by more than half.  The Departments of Justice and Education have partnered to reduce racial disparities in school discipline practices more generally across the nation’s schools.

The United States also works to ensure that all students have access to high-rigor courses. For another example, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in Ohio had low enrollment at innovative schools that focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics because the district did not distribute relevant information in Spanish, which is the home language of 80% of the district’s English learner students. Through a resolution agreement with the school district, my office is working to ensure that the district reaches out to Latino families and does a better job to identify and assess the barriers to Latino students’ participation in these creative programs.

In addition to our enforcement efforts, the Department provides policy guidance to proactively assist educational institutions in their compliance with civil rights laws. For example, in 2011 we published guidance that advises elementary and secondary schools on how they may reduce racial isolation and how colleges and universities may voluntarily pursue racial diversity consistent with the law.
We’ve also issued policy guidance related to the equal right of all elementary and secondary school students to an education regardless of their (or their parents’) citizenship or immigration status, as well guidance on the obligations of schools at all levels to respond to bullying and harassment based on a student’s race, color, or national origin.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the Department of Education’s work to reduce racial discrimination in our nation’s schools. I know my fellow federal agencies that are not speaking today also look forward to providing similar information to the Committee about the range of programs and authorities they use to combat racial discrimination in the United States consistent with our Convention obligations.
I am now privileged to introduce a great leader and local partner of the Department, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel from the State of Arkansas.