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Betsy DeVos Should 'Recommit' to Enforcing Civil Rights Laws, Coalition Says


A group of more than 100 education advocacy groups are urging Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to ensure that their departments are upholding civil rights laws and "are working to protect all students from discrimination." 

In a Thursday letter to DeVos, Whitaker, and their deputies for civil rights, groups including the American Federation of Teachers, Children's Defense Fund, and the NAACP registered their strong opposition to DeVos' decision last month to rescind the Obama administration's school discipline guidance that was intended to protect students of color from the disparate impacts of discipline policies. They said the administration should "vigorously recommit" to respond meaningfully to "racial discrimination in school discipline." 

"We reject any effort to undermine the protections and supports these laws provide, through the rescission of guidance used to inform all parties of their rights and obligations under the law," the letter says. "We also oppose any effort to limit resources and practical tools available to help recipients of federal funding proactively comply with the law."

DeVos and some educators have argued that the guidance placed an undue burden on schools and forced some educators to choose between their own judgments and fears that they would be accused of discrimination.

A Trump administration school safety panel—which DeVos served on along with other cabinet secretaries—recommended that the Education and Justice Departments rescind the guidance in a report released Dec. 18, and the Trump administration did so three days later.

At least one critic of the guidance, Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Mike Petrilli, stressed that repealing the guidance does nothing to stop those who believe they suffered from discimrination from filing a federal civil rights complaint.

But supporters of the guidance argued that it addressed widespread disparities in how students of color and their peers were treated after committing the same disciplinary infractions. The guidance did not have the force of law, but the Obama administration warned districts they could run afoul of federal civil rights laws if their disciplinary policies created a "disparate impact" on different groups of students.

Although Congress has provided small increases for the Education Department's office for civil rights, critics also say that DeVos' decision to move that office's focus away from investigations of systemic bias has taken much of the muscle out of civil rights enforcement.

"Rescinding the guidance does not affect the statutes and regulations that the guidance clarifies. Schools are still prohibited from discriminating against students and ED is still obligated to enforce civil rights law," the letter states.

Read the coalition's letter below:

Photo: Max Schacter, father of Parkland victim Alex Schacter, right, speaks with President Donald Trump during a roundtable discussion on the Federal Commission on School Safety report, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Dec. 18, 2018, in Washington. From left, Trump, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Sheriff Kevin Byars, Marshall County, Ky., and Schacter. (Evan Vucci/AP)

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