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Civil Rights Groups Urge Congress to Tackle DeVos Oversight, School Safety Legislation

A leading coalition of civil rights groups wants federal lawmakers to focus on oversight of the U.S. Department of Education when the new Congress begins next year, as well as legislation addressing student health and school safety.

In a letter to the House and Senate on Wednesday, the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights also asked lawmakers to pass legislation that deals with the restraint and seclusion of students, corporal punishment in schools, and police in schools.

As for oversight, the coalition asked Congress to look into Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' actions with respect to the department's office for civil rights, enforcement of Every Student Succeeds Act requirements, and racial disparities in special education.

It'll be a very different world on Capitol Hill next month when the 116th Congress begins and Democrats take control of the House from Republicans. Thanks to the midterm elections, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., is set to take over the House education committee and will have the chance to significantly shift the panel's focus. (The Senate will remain in Republican hands.)

We previewed what a Democratic takeover of the House could mean last month. Scott and other House Democrats have consistently and vigorously opposed what they say is lax oversight by DeVos when it comes to ensuring help for disadvantaged students under ESSA. They've also criticized her push to shrink the civil rights office and narrow the scope of its work to move away from investigations of systemic bias in schools, her decision to eliminate Obama administration guidance intended to protect the rights of transgender students, and more. 

Now that Scott and his party are in the driver's seat, the Leadership Conference wants Democrats to act on all that, and more. Not surprisingly perhaps, priorities for Democrats and civil rights groups match pretty closely in several areas. 

For example, last month Democrats unveiled legislation to ban the seclusion of students and sharply restrict when school staff can restrain disruptive students. That's a big priority for the coalition as well as for special education advocates, although some educators say the issue defies blanket policy prescriptions. 

As the coalition indicates, school safety and student health are major ongoing topics and, particularly in light of several school shootings earlier this year, it could become a major focus of battles between DeVos and Democrats. Scott and civil rights groups are bracing for an anticipated decision by DeVos to roll back school discipline guidance from the Obama years. If she does, expect her to get grilled by the committee about it next year. Scott could also tackle what he and other Democrats have said is an inappropriate use of police in schools that disproportionately hurts students of color. 

Read the Leadership conference's full letter here:

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