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Democrats Blast Betsy DeVos for Her Department's 'Hostility' to Civil Rights

Fifty Democrats in Congress have urged Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to nominate a "qualified individual" to run the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights, and are continuing to criticize her approach to issues ranging from sexual assault to transgender student rights protections.

In a letter Tuesday, the Democratic lawmakers specifically singled out Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, for displaying a "hostility towards the very mission and functions of the office she is charged to lead." More broadly, the lawmakers criticized the department's approach to investigations involving students of color, English-language learners, and LGBTQ students, among others. 

DeVos's approach to civil rights has become one of the most controversial parts of her work during her first six months on the job. The secretary has said that the education department's office for civil rights under Obama was too aggressive and too eager to pursue broad cases against institutions, leaving individual students' civil rights complaints to languish. DeVos also told Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., one of her top critics, that this approach "harmed students." The department has rolled back Obama-era protections for transgender students and instituted a new approach that focused on bullying claims but not access to school facilities such as restrooms and locker rooms. DeVos has also stressed her commitment in general to protecting students' civil rights.

The lead authors of the letter are Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, along with Democratic Reps. Jared Polis of Colorado and Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware. Both Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrats on their respective chambers' education committees, also signed onto the Tuesday letter. 

Democrats on Capitol Hill have consistently blasted DeVos and her team on civil rights, saying that the department's new approach will neglect cases of systematic discrimination against disadvantaged students. Jackson came under fire recently for comments about sexual assault on college campuses—in fact, those remarks led Murray to call for Jackson's resignation, which so far has not occurred.

"We are very concerned that the actions taken by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) under its current leadership signal an abandonment of its responsibility to protect students from discrimination within the education system," the House and Senate Democrats wrote to DeVos on Tuesday.

Our colleague Evie Blad recently interviewed Catherin Lhamon, the former assistant secretary for civil rights at the department under Obama. Lhamon expressed similar concerns about the DeVos team's approach to civil rights investigations.

Read the Democrats' full letter below:

Dear Secretary DeVos,

We write to you today to urge you to stand up for the civil rights of students across the country by working with the President to nominate a qualified individual to be the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education (the Department). We are very concerned that the actions taken by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) under its current leadership signal an abandonment of its responsibility to protect students from discrimination within the education system.                   

The Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights serves as the agency's chief advisor on civil rights matters, and is responsible for leading the Department's work to: ensure justice for students who report discrimination through the Department's complaint process; investigate systemic discrimination; issue clarifying policy guidance to assist schools, districts and states in meeting their obligations under federal law; and collect and report the data needed to identify where students do and do not have equal opportunity in education. By failing to nominate someone for this position, you are indicating that civil rights are not a priority for the Department--a dangerous message that students and schools across the country are hearing loud and clear. 

The Office for Civil Rights' (OCR) mission is to "ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights." During her tenure, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson, has displayed hostility towards the very mission and functions of the office she is charged to lead.

Over the course of the last few weeks, both the Trump administration and the Department have encroached on the civil rights of students. Firstly, OCR staff have been instructed to shrink the scope of its civil rights investigations and, dismiss cases relating to discrimination against transgender students. Secondly, Acting Assistant Secretary Jackson has ended the longstanding practice of OCR headquarters' staff maintaining oversight of certain types of investigations occurring in regional offices when the cases relate to changing and developing legal doctrine. This new policy will lead to gaps in enforcement by the Department that will disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, immigrant students, women and girls, and LGBTQ students and lead to inconsistent remedial measures that are at the discretion of investigators at the regional level. Most recently, it was reported by the New York Times on August 1st that the Department of Justice is seeking to investigate and sue schools with affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants. We strongly urge OCR to fight to ensure that all students have the opportunity to pursue higher education, including through the use of admissions policies that encourage diversity and inclusion on our college campuses.

These egregious actions have been compounded by statements made by Acting Assistant Secretary Jackson about sexual assault and harassment on campus, raising concerns that the Department does not intend to fulfill its commitment under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) to protect vulnerable students. Had Acting Assistant Secretary Jackson been formally nominated to lead OCR, her qualifications, views, and plans for the office would have been closely scrutinized by both the Senate and students, parents and educators nationwide. We are calling on you to urge the President to nominate an Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, so that nominee can be fully vetted in a public hearing.

As you work to assist the President in selecting a nominee for the position of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, we ask that you select someone with a proven record of support for civil rights enforcement on behalf of marginalized communities; management experience that would prepare them to manage more than 500 civil rights attorneys and investigators in regional offices around the United States; relevant experience and a commitment to remedying individual and systemic racial and sex discrimination, per the Clery Act and Title IX; and addressing sexual harassment and assault on campuses to promote safe learning environments for all students with an understanding of the needs of rape survivors and the nature of trauma. Finally, the qualified candidate should have an unrelenting belief that every student regardless of race, religion, disability, country of origin, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity has the right to be at school every day, feel safe, and treated with dignity without the burden of discrimination. 

OCR exists to ensure equal access to education for all of our nation's students and help create and foster learning environments that are free of harassment and discrimination. This includes ending discriminatory discipline policies, expanding learning opportunities for students of all ability levels, addressing school policies that seek to single out students based on gender identity or sexual orientation and promoting policies to put an end to sexual assault on college campuses. These are only a few of the vital functions of OCR's mission to help ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights. The current choice of leadership for OCR raises questions about your commitment in carrying out the Department's obligation to enforce civil rights within the educational system. We ask that you do your part to put a leader in place that is both committed to and proactive in upholding these vital values.  

In selecting a qualified individual to serve as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and uphold its mission, you and the President have the opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to core American values of equal opportunity, nondiscrimination, and diversity, as well as, respect for the rule of law and why it is so important that all students are safe in our nation's schools. We hope that you will make a decision guided by those values.


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