A House subcommittee accused the Education Department and the Justice Department yesterday of failing to enforce federal civil rights laws against school districts that discriminate against blacks, women and the handicapped.
According to a report prepared by the Government Operations intergovernmental relations and human resources subcommittee, the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights has delayed initiating enforcement proceedings -- which may lead to a mandatory cutoff of federal funds -- long after school districts are initially found to practice discrimination. The report was held for release until this morning.
Specifically, the report said, the civil rights office has ignored the mandatory timetable for resolving discrimination complaints that was set by a federal judge almost three years ago.
Under the Reagan administration, the civil rights office found 2,000 violations of the law by school districts and colleges, but took only 27 of those cases to administrative hearings while sending another 24 to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, the report said.
Of the 24 cases sent to the Justice Department, 16 are idle, five were sent back to the civil rights office, one is involved in a suit and two were settled without enforcement action.
Meanwhile, the civil rights office has settled hundreds of discrimination complaints by obtaining early, voluntary settlements. The Justice Department and the office's own enforcement section have warned that this practice was of questionable legality and may set dangerous precedents for future complaints.
Until yesterday, the Education Department's civil rights office was headed by Assistant Secretary Harry M. Singleton, who announced last fall that he would resign at the end of last year. Before leaving, Singleton issued a statement on the House panel's report, saying "This is ridiculous. It is a lot of nonsense.
"What we have is a very biased investigation conducted by a liberal politician with very different views on how to achieve some very important civil rights goals."
Singleton was referring to Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.), who chairs the subcommittee and who has clashed with Singleton several times over civil rights enforcement. In one particularly stormy hearing last July, Singleton accused Weiss of "nit-picking" the issue and Weiss accused Singleton of lying under oath.
An Education Department spokesman said a further response may come once officials review the entire report.
The report also was criticized by the subcommittee's Republican members, who issued a separate conclusion that the Democratic-controlled panel "has gone to great lengths to paint a very bleak picture of enforcement activity at OCR," the Office of Civil Rights.
"There is no mention of the fact that OCR is statutorily required to seek voluntary compliance with civil rights laws before initiating enforcement action," the Republicans said. "Also noticeably absent from the report is any mention of the improved performance record OCR has achieved in recent years."
Weiss, in effect, is accusing the Education Department of sending cases to the Justice Department in order to avoid the funds cutoff.
Weiss referred to one case specifically, in Dillon County, S.C., as exemplary of "how this administration has derailed civil rights law enforcement."
The Office of Civil Rights first ruled in 1977 that the Dillon County School District No. 2 discriminated against blacks because of its practice of grouping students according to their ability -- with black students usually ending up in the lower-ability groups. When U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt, in 1983, set a strict timetable for resolving discrimination complaints, the Office of Civil Rights sent the case to the Justice Department for prosecution.
Eleven months after the Dillon case was referred to the Justice Department, Justice officials informed the Education Department that it would not take enforcement action. Now, 15 months after Justice sent the case back to Education -- and more than eight years after the district was found to discriminate -- the federal government has taken no action to strip the Dillon County school district of its federal funds.
In a hearing before Weiss' subcommittee last September, Singleton said he intended to begin proceedings against Dillon County soon.
"The Dillon case," said Weiss, "and others we have reviewed reveal flagrant examples of how this administration has derailed civil rights law enforcement . . . . The administration only attempts to remedy discrimination after enormous pressures are brought to bear upon it by the courts."
In many cases, the civil rights office has settled discrimination complaints by using the procedure known in departmental parlance as "early complaint resolution." That means essentially getting the person filing the discrimination complaint and officials of the institution involved to work out an agreement before the department launches an investigation.
The Justice Department, in a memo dated Nov. 13, 1981, warned the office that the procedure raised "several potential problems," including giving offending institutions new precedents they could point to in the future.
The House panel report said that when complaints are resolved using the early settlement technique, the institution could continue to discriminate after settling a complaint with an individual.
Saying the technique "can save time and money," the report added that it "may be illegal, may not protect the rights of complainants, and may jeopardize future litigation involving violations of civil rights laws."