Feds Open New Civil Rights Probe into OKC Public Schools

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Karen Burston, of Oklahoma City, is tearful as she talks about what she believes is the discrimination she and her son have faced at Sequoyah Elementary School. Burston’s son is in a special education program.

Victor Henderson / Oklahoma Watch

Karen Burston, of Oklahoma City, is tearful as she talks about what she believes is the discrimination she and her son have faced at Sequoyah Elementary School. Burston’s son is in a special education program.

A federal civil rights agency has opened its fourth investigation into Oklahoma City Public Schools, this time focused on claims that school officials discriminated against special education students.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said the newest investigation, filed on Dec. 3, examines whether the district applied different treatment, exclusion or denial of benefits to students with disabilities.

The filing only came to light this week following a check by Oklahoma Watch on a previous investigation. Department officials who spoke of the probe did not release additional details because the investigation is ongoing.

Two of the four open civil rights cases in Oklahoma City Public Schools involve discrimination against special education students. The previous cases include:

>Failure to provide male and female students with equal opportunity and access to athletic activities, filed in 2007.

>Discrimination against students with disabilities, filed in 2011.

>Discriminatory practices in the discipline of minority students, filed in 2014.

District officials declined a request for comment on the newest investigation.

Karen Burston, who has a son enrolled in the special education program at Sequoyah Elementary School, said an Office for Civil Rights staff contacted her Thursday asking her to re-file a discrimination complaint against the district. Burston was in the process of filing that Friday.

Oklahoma Watch interviewed Burston as part of a a series, “The Punishment Gap,” that looked at how special education students are disparately disciplined in Oklahoma compared to their peers.

In October, Burston said she believed she and her 10-year-old son were targeted by Sequoyah Elementary School officials because of their race and religion. The family is black and Muslim.

Records shared by Burston show that district officials warned her she could be arrested or fined because her son missed or showed up late for seven days of school in 2014-2015. (He missed or was late on other days as well.)

A first-time truancy violation carries a minimum $25 fine or up to five days in jail or both. The maximum penalty is a $250 fine and up to 15 days in jail or both for three or more violations.

Burston said her son’s “504 plan,” which spells out how school officials will address her son’s disabilities, allowed her son to show up half an hour late each day because of his anxiety. That’s where most of the missed time came from, Burston said.

Those letters stopped after she took her complaints to the district offices.

Burston’s son is now on an individualized education plan, which spells out how the school will address her son’s disability in order to provide him an education.

Burston said she does not believe the district is fulfilling its obligations under that plan.

One of her complaints involves the school refusing to provide her son with a tablet he can use to write with. Her son has poor handwriting due to limited motor abilities.

Other students with similar disabilities have been provided tablets to write with, Burston said.

“I’m just trying to make sure my son gets a fair education,” Burston said.