Feds give mixed signal on El Paso schools probe

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Associated Press

Posted on December 8, 2013 at 3:32 AM

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Federal education agency officials say they won't pursue potential civil rights violations from a cheating scheme at El Paso public schools, though the school district may not be totally in the clear.

Another department official said it has discretion to extend that 180-day window, the El Paso Times reported (bit.ly/IZTLbN) Saturday.

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso received word this week from the U.S. Department of Education that agency rules bar investigations of allegations that are more than 180 days old.

O'Rourke, a Democrat, has been pushing the Department of Education for an update since an audit last summer revealed a cheating scheme focusing on Mexican immigrant students and standardized testing used for federal accountability. He sent another letter to the department late Friday seeking clarification.

"The single most urgent part of this whole scandal is trying to get justice for these kids who were denied an education," O'Rourke told the newspaper.

The El Paso Independent School District is one of at least three in the area where reviews have found manipulation of testing. The former El Paso school superintendent, Lorenzo Garcia, has pleaded guilty to fraud related to the scheme and is serving a three-year prison term.

An audit released over the summer found widespread cheating between 2007 and 2010 in the El Paso district.

Two assistant secretaries of education, in a letter to the congressman this week, said civil rights violations in the district's cheating scheme are too old to be pursued as civil rights complaints.

"(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," said 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.

However, Catherine Grant, a spokeswoman for the agency's Office of the Inspector General, said civil rights investigations can be made beyond the 180-day limit and that the office "can conduct a review whenever they want; and can investigate based on any information that indicates a possible violation."

The audit found students in El Paso's Priority Schools Division — particularly Mexican immigrant students in high schools — were targeted in the scheme. Some were improperly kept in ninth grade to keep them from taking the 10th-grade standardized test used for federal accountability. Others inexplicably were promoted from ninth to 11th grade for the same purpose, according to the audit, and others were pushed out of school.

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Information from: El Paso Times, http://www.elpasotimes.com

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