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Federal government to investigate claims of discrimination within Denver Public Schools

Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative law firm, filed the complaints in 2023.
dps denver public schools
Posted at 10:52 AM, Feb 07, 2024

DENVER — The Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, will investigate two complaints of alleged racial discrimination within the Denver Public Schools (DPS) system.

Will Trachman is general counsel for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which filed the complaints with the OCR in 2023.

"In broad strokes, yes, it's a conservative, it's a right-wing law firm," Trachman said, explaining what Mountain States Legal Foundation is. “I was the deputy assistant secretary for civil rights in the Trump Administration. That's how I know about the Office for Civil Rights taking these complaints.”

Last week, Trachman said he was notified that the OCR will be opening investigations into two complaints filed by the law firm. One complaint alleged that "Caucasians and individuals of other races" were discriminated against when they applied for the Discipline Matrix Committee at DPS. The second claimed that "Caucasian students; heterosexual and non-transgender students" were discriminated against because of requirements for a math extension program at one elementary school.

“One involves DPS, it's Discipline Matrix Committee, and that's a committee that gets together and decides what sort of severity of punishment is appropriate for students who break the rules... We had a good hunch that they were going to be using race as a factor in deciding who would join the committee," Trachman said. “The math extension case, we learned about an elementary school in the northeast of Denver that was having different thresholds for extension classes. So these are classes for students who are gifted or talented or able at math. The district has a 95th percentile threshold for white students. But for people of color, according to our documents, they have a much lower threshold, a lower expectation."

In responses, which were provided by Trachman, the OCR said it will investigate "whether the district excludes applicants from participating in the Discipline Matrix Committee on the basis of race, color, or national origin in violation of Title VI." The office said it will also open an investigation into "whether the district discriminates against students on the basis of race and color in violation of Title VI in determining students' eligibility to participate in a fourth-grade math extension program."

“I wouldn’t say that they were actually committed to diversity in the truest sense of the word," Trachman said. “Denver Public Schools is unambiguously treating students and community members different based on skin color... What you can't do is say, 'Your race is what matters most and we take your skin color, and we put it above all else.' That's inconsistent with federal civil rights laws. Title VI doesn't allow that."

In total, Trachman said Mountain States Legal Foundation has filed five complaints against DPS related to racial discrimination allegations.

As for the other three complaints, Trachman said one has moved into mediation. That complaint is related to claims that DPS uses race and skin color to select members of their District Accountability Committee.

The other two complaints are pending but are connected to allegations that DPS uses "racial considerations for selecting members of its bond and mill levy committee," and the school system's alleged policy of "using racial preferences to select third-party vendors and contractors."

Trachman said he is very skeptical of diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

"Those are often just a ruse in order to get people to think more about race, think more about skin color and engage in discrimination. I'm very much in favor of intellectual diversity and a range of perspectives," said Trachman. “It's okay to have conversations about making sure that everyone is treated equally, and that there aren't disparate impacts based on policies. But it's not okay to start talking about racial preferences or prioritizing certain races over others. Those are the sorts of things that divide us... One could say that the fact that they've obsessed so much about race has caused only detriment to those groups.”

In a statement, DPS said it follows Department of Justice guidance when it comes to equity work.

Denver Public Schools operates under Department of Justice guidance in regard to equity work. The DOJ has issued guidance to guide equity work in public schools and everything we do in Denver Public Schools is aligned to that Department of Justice guidance.
Scott Pribble, DPS

Iris Halpern is a partner at Rathod Mohamedbhai, a law firm that specializes in civil rights law. She calls the coverage of these complaints overblown.

“[The OCR] is required by law to investigate once those minimum thresholds are disclosed or satisfied... It doesn't mean that there's any legitimacy to the complaints or that the Office for Civil Rights is eventually going to find that there was discrimination," Halpern said.

Halpern continued to say the complaints are part of a strategy used to politicize issues largely affecting students of color in DPS.

"There are current barriers and obstacles that are widely understood to still exist in our school systems and elsewhere that disproportionately impact historically marginalized groups. Even mentioning them or even trying to think of a plan to deal with those obstacles is under attack, both politically and legally," said Halpern. "It's part of a larger pattern that we're seeing in a number of different fields that has really, really kind of been manufactured over the last few years.”

Halpern argues the complaints related to the alleged discrimination are more divisive than any equity program.

“Threatening lawsuits to any organization that tries to deal with racial inequality and inequities in our contemporary society is by far more divisive," said Halpern. “This has been a manufactured issue by a small fringe minority of individuals who do not want to deal with racism, do not want to deal with homophobia, because of political tactics in order to gain more power in society, and because they're afraid of change.”

Denver7 reached out to the Office of Civil Rights, but has not received a response as of Tuesday.

Trachman said the OCR has roughly 180 days to resolve the complaints.