Education Dept Makes Big Change to Civil Rights Investigations

Aaron Bernstein  Reuters
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy De Vos testifies in Washington D.C

Further explaining the office's actions, ProPublica recently published an internal memo from the Department of Education which indicates the office's intent to scale back civil rights investigations.

Some civil rights advocates immediately assailed the memo as part of an attempt by the Trump administration to whittle away at civil rights enforcement.

The broader memo also puts an end to the Obama administration guideline recommending that investigators look at school or district records going back three years to determine if there has been a pattern of civil rights violations. "That is not an option under the law, and OCR does not have the option to pick and choose the cases it wants to open". "Federal court rulings are increasingly on the side of transgender students, even if Secretary DeVos and Attorney General Sessions are not". The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue. The new guidance, which was issued to employees last week, says officials should rely on Title IX when "evaluating complaints of sex discrimination against individuals whether or not the individual is transgender".

"It is the goal and desire of this Department that OCR approach each of these cases with great care and individualized attention before reaching a dismissal conclusion", the guidance reads. Investigations into transgender students being denied the right to use the bathrooms of their choice is not on that list - and the memo states that based on jurisdiction, some complaints might go forward while others, involving bathrooms, might be dismissed.

However, groups that advocate for transgender students fear that the OCR is trying to shirk responsibility for protecting students against bathroom discrimination.

The Obama administration called on school districts to treat a student's gender identity as their sex and to treat students in a way consistent with their gender identities, including when it came to bathrooms and locker rooms. The unclear instructions issued by the Department of Education sow a new level of confusion and doubt for students, families and schools. "Americans would agree your rights should not be determined on your Zip code or what person in an office happened to handle your complaint", said Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN (originally the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network). "They have just sent a message to schools that it's open season on transgender students".

The statement cited cuts to civil rights staffing in the department's proposed 2018 budget as well as what it called the secretary's repeated refusal "in congressional testimony and other public statements to commit that the department would enforce federal civil rights laws".

A memo from the Department of Education on handling of transgender civil rights complaints instructs officials to continue investigating those complaints as they would have before 2016 guidance issued by the Obama administration.

"Along with changing programmatic priorities, these proposed cuts would result in a unsafe reduction of civil rights enforcement across the country, leaving communities of color, LGBT people, older people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups exposed to greater risk of discrimination", the commission wrote in a statement announcing the investigation. They say that Education Department staff members would be discouraged from opening cases and that investigations could be weakened because efficiency would take priority over thoroughness. "In OCR, processing times have skyrocketed in recent years, and the case backlog has exploded".

"It's really a way of curtailing the way civil rights enforcement should be handled". But critics of the Trump administration considered the narrowing of some investigations as another example of an effort to narrow civil rights enforcement. The group's statement highlights a number of concerning proposed staff and budget cuts across a number of government agencies.

The commission - an independent, bipartisan agency charged with advising the president and Congress on matters of civil rights - voted on Friday to conduct a two-year investigation of federal civil rights enforcement, saying it had "grave concerns" about the Trump administration's agenda. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a statement.

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