June 23, 2017

Education Department Closes Transgender Student Cases, Scales Back 'Systemic' Civil Rights Investigations

18 June 2017, 01:51 | Opal Carroll

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

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

Under new head Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education will be easing up on investigations into civil rights complaints-investigations that were greatly expanded under President Obama, the New York Times reports.

Condemning the instructions as "unclear" was Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, who under the Obama administration was principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Groups that advocate for LGBTQ students met with Department of Education officials Friday morning in an off-the-record meeting.

For example, the agency may still investigate schools' refusal to use a student's preferred name or pronouns and allegations of retaliation against a transgender student who raises concerns about possible sex discrimination.

"These new instructions from the Department of Education are far from clear, and federal court rulings are increasingly on the side of transgender students", Esseks added, implying that the organization may pursue further lawsuits to challenge the new guidance.

The commission expressed concern about staff reductions in the civil rights offices at the Education Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as about changes at other agencies. Individual complaints related to complex issues such as school discipline, sexual violence and harassment, equal access to educational resources, or racism at a single school might have prompted broader probes to determine whether the allegations were part of a pattern of discrimination or harassment. Education officials said they wanted to emphasize that transgender students may still have valid discrimination complaints despite the rescission of that guidance. Specifically, the instructions say that investigators should not reject gender harassment allegations in a complaint, even if they have dismissed allegations involving "denial of access to restrooms based on gender identity".

Others, who believe that students must use bathrooms according to their biological sex rather than their gender identity, have welcomed the Trump administration's change of course on complaints involving transgender students.

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"They are hinting that they are not enforcing the law", said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "The presumption here should be it's business as usual, and not that OCR is abdicating its role as a protector of civil rights for transgender students". "In OCR, processing times have skyrocketed in recent years, and the case backlog has exploded".

The Department of Justice is similarly cutting back on its enforcement of civil rights.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights - an independent and bipartisan federal agency whose eight members must be split evenly by party and are appointed by the President (4), Senate (2) and House (2) - has launched a two-year investigation into the Trump administration's civil rights enforcement.

"President Trump and his administration can claim to oppose discrimination all they want, but actions speak louder than words", she said.

Some enforcement officers at the Office for Civil Rights, who have long complained about being overburdened, embraced the new flexibility.

The federal watchdog group became concerned about the Trump administration after several agencies announced budget and personnel cuts in departments that oversee civil rights. Jackson also recently defended new policies on the rights of trans students after one employee told the Huffington Post "officials should investigate issues of discrimination just as they would have before the Obama-era rules were implemented". Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a statement.

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